Inside the meeting that saved Rangers 1994 Cup season

new york rangers
Rangers coach Mike Keenan celebrates with the Stanley Cup after defeating Vancouver 3-2 in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals at Madison Square Garden June 14, 1994. Rangers Win Stanley Cup

When the New York Rangers ended their 54-year curse by winning the Stanley Cup on this day 30 years ago, very few people understood just how bad things had gotten behind the scenes.

During that memorable season, the press reported that there were issues between Neil Smith and Mike Keenan. However, it wasn’t until Barry Meisel’s outstanding book, Losing the Edge: The Rise and Fall of the Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers, that everyone found out just how tumultuous things became between the general manager and the coach.

So, how did these two clashing egos find a way to work out their differences and get on the same page to bring Broadway its only championship since 1940? A gentleman that loved to wear a tuxedo and also happened to be president of Madison Square Garden called for a meeting days before the ’94 trade deadline that by all accounts saved the season.

Related: 1994 Trade Deadline biggest in history

Meeting that saved Rangers 1994 Season

1994 new york rangers
Rangers players pose for a team photo after defeating Vancouver 3-2 in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals at Madison Square Garden June 14, 1994. Rangers Win Stanley Cup

In November of 2022, Bob Gutkowski reached out to me after reading stories I had written about the Blueshirts Cup-winning season. It was at that time, he informed me that he was in the process of writing a book about his incredible time running Madison Square Garden.

Through several email exchanges and phone calls, I learned of a meeting that took place prior to the biggest trade deadline for any team in NHL history. It was a revealing conversation filled with insights I had never heard before, but Bob asked me not to divulge this information until his book was released.

That time has now come.

On June 11, Gut Punch, by Bob Gutkowski and Wally Matthews was released by Palmetto Publishing and is on sale wherever books are sold. To promote his new book, and fulfill a promise to jump on the Forever Blueshirts Show, we go inside the meeting that saved the season.

“As we got into the first quarter of ’94, their relationship was really in trouble,” Gutkowski recollected. “It got to a point where they stopped talking to each other in February. There was no dialogue between general manager and coach. Here we are leading the League, and that was of great concern.

“About a day or two before the trading deadline in March, I get a call in my office from Rob Campbell, who was Mike’s agent. He says to me, ‘I am calling you on behalf of my client, and he wants me to represent to you that he believes the team is not good enough win, and he doesn’t want to be held accountable if they don’t win the Stanley Cup.”

Upset over receiving that call, Gutkowski realized that in order to salvage the Rangers’ chances, he would have to get involved. Immediately, he told Campbell to get Keenan to a meeting at his office, and then asked Neil Smith to attend.

Surprisingly, Smith did not want to go. Gutkowski then issued an ultimatum to his general manager to attend or be fired.

“You have to go. If you’re not there, you’re gone,” Gutkowski warned Smith. “This is the guy you wanted. Now you guys are not talking and I think we’ve got a real problem. We’re going to meet tomorrow in my office to work it out, and we did! It turned out to be this fascinating meeting which I believe really was ultimately the reason the Cup was won.”

Rangers get gritty

Of course, the meeting between Smith and Keenan needed a mediator to get the ball rolling. So, Gutkowski had them sit on separate sides of the table and put himself in the middle of the fire ready to let it rip.

“I got a real problem here,” he began. “I got a coach that thinks the team isn’t good enough. I’ve got a general manager that thinks the team is good enough. I don’t think the team is good enough, the Garden is being sold, and only one guy in this room is going to get screwed– That’s me. So, we’re going to sit here, and work it out until we figure out what we need to do to win the Cup.”

Gutkowski had Keenan kick things off, and what his coach said resonates with him till this day.

“Mike said, ‘I’m like a baker and I know we need more sugar in this icing, or you guys are going to get seduced like you did in ’92,’ and I never forgot that line,” Gutkowski relayed how Keenan bringing up that playoff failure was an important reminder.

The sugar that Keenan was talking about was grit. However, Gutkowski urged him to explain to Smith exactly what he needed, and no one could leave until it was done.

“You two guys, who are very good at what you do, are going to leave this room and figure out how to win the Cup,” Gutkowski stated.

After months of no communication, both Keenan and Smith had a productive dialogue to where Gutkowski left the room no longer feeling needed. On March 21, 1994, the League-leading Rangers went for it all by making four trades that included moving two top-six forwards in Mike Gartner and Tony Amonte.

In exchange, Smith added players that fit Keenan’s description in Stephane Matteau, Brian Noonan, Glenn Anderson, and Craig MacTavish. All would play key roles in the magical run to the Stanley Cup.

Although Smith doesn’t recall the meeting, Gutkowski states that Neil deferred to his former boss’ memory.

Winning the Stanley Cup is never easy. Along the way there are many moments that you can point back to as pivotal to the journey. Trading for Mark Messier at the start of the 1991-92 season is certainly the biggest one, as was the decision to keep Mike Richter over John Vanbiesbrouck.

There’s also Messier’s ‘Guarantee’ against the Devils in Game 6, followed by “Matteau, Matteau, Matteau” in double-overtime of Game 7. Richter stopping Pavel Bure on a penalty shot, and the nail-biting Game 7 against the Canucks that ended with one last face-off with 1.6 seconds on the clock.

Finally, we can add a meeting held in Bob Gutkowski’s office to the lore of the 1994 run.

Gut Punch by Bob Gutkowski and Wally Matthews (Palmetto Publishing - provided by Bob Gutkowski)
Gut Punch by Bob Gutkowski and Wally Matthews (Palmetto Publishing – provided by Bob Gutkowski)

Anthony Scultore is the founder of Forever Blueshirts and has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL... More about Anthony Scultore

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