Reliving Rangers: 1994 New York Rangers were a special team for a special time

By Forever Blueshirts
Nick Kypreos
Nick Kypreos, right of Messier celebrates the Cup (Photo: NYDN)

Today is June 14th, 27 years to the day when the Rangers ended the 54 year curse and lifted the Stanley Cup. This is their story, but it’s also mine as a young fan of the team. Of a memory that will truly last a lifetime.

1994 New York Rangers: Neil Smith, the Architect

Every story has a beginning and when it comes to the team that won it all, you start with the General Manager, Neil Smith.

“Neil Smith was able to do what no other general manager could in 54 years for the New York Rangers-win the Stanley Cup! It was Neil’s bold approach to changing the culture that allowed the team to galvanize into champions.” Those are the words of Mark Messier and they neatly sum up just how much Neil Smith meant to that team.

Neil Smith was hired by the Rangers in 1989 to capture a Cup, because that’s what he was used to – winning. In his earlier years, Neil spent the 80’s working for the NY Islanders and Detroit Red Wings under Jim Devellano. He gained valuable experience and success by winning two Calder Cups (AHL Championships) with the Adirondack Red Wings. By the time he got to the Rangers, this former Islanders draft pick was ready to build a winner.

It didn’t hurt that he inherited a team with future stars in Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, but he knew he’d need more. Neil’s early drafting yielded results with players like Tony Amonte, Doug Weight and three key Russian stars in Sergei Nemchinov, Sergei Zubov and Alexei Kovalev. All 5 players would in one way or another play huge roles in winning the Cup, but Neil wanted results quickly and went after it via trades.

He earned the nickname “Big Deal Neil” for his ability to bring in huge names to NY. It began in January of 1990 when he packaged Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato to the LA Kings for Bernie Nicholls. Not satisfied with an all-star center, he went for a sniper at the deadline to land Mike Gartner for Ulf Dahlen. Neil put the league on notice that he was ready to do whatever he could to win a Cup in NY.

1994 New York Rangers
Smith and Messier make amends (Charles Wenzelberg/NYPost)

That season, the Rangers would knock out the rival Islanders in 5 games only to lose to the Capitals in 5 the next round. NY simply had no way of stopping the beast known as John Druce in the playoffs, but Smith’s first season was a success as the Rangers won the Patrick Division for the first time ever. The following year NY finished second and were bounced by the Capitals again, this time in the first round. Smith knew, if he was ever going to win the Cup, he needed proven winners. For that he looked West at the Edmonton Oilers and “Big Deal” Neil was about to change the Rangers forever.

On October 4th, 1991 in what is still the greatest trade in Rangers history, Smith landed 5 time Cup winner Mark Messier and future consideration for Bernie Nicholls, Louie DeBrusk and Steven Rice. That consideration turned out to be Jeff Beukeboom who partnered with Brian Leetch to form NY’s top defensive pair for years. Upon his arrival, Messier was immediately named the Captain and Smith prophetically said “The Rangers logo will look a little different after Mark is done here.” He couldn’t have been more right.

That year, the Blueshirts captured the 1991-92 President’s Trophy as the best team during the regular season. Another franchise first under Neil Smith, but the season ended in bitter disappointment with a loss to the Penguins in the playoffs. If Neil thought that was rock bottom, he was wrong. The following season the Rangers fell apart at the seams. Brian Leetch suffered a major injury and was done for. A power struggle between Roger Neilson and Mark Messier led to the coach’s firing, and NY missed the playoffs. They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, nothing could be more true for Neil Smith and 1993-94 NY RANGERS.

Key Cup Moves:

Adam Graves signed as a free agent, September 1991

Esa Tikkanen acquired from Edmonton for Doug Weight, March 1993

Hired Mike Keenan as head coach, April 1993

Doug Lidster acquired from Vancouver for John Vanbiesbrouck, June 1993

Glenn Anderson acquired from Toronto for Mike Gartner, March deadline 1994

Craig MacTavish acquired from Edmonton for Todd Marchant, March deadline 1994

Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan acquired from Chicago for Tony Amonte, March deadline 1994

Mike Keenan: The coach who pushed the team to the brink

new york rangers history
Mike Keenan with the Cup overhead (SI)

“The Pitbull” as he was called by Neil Smith in NY, came into town with a nasty attitude and track record for winning in the playoffs.

Prior to joining the NY Rangers, Mike Keenan lost in the Finals 3 times and the Conference Finals twice in only 8 years. Neil Smith had already proven he would do whatever it takes to bring a Cup to NY with trades, now he was ready to deal with the devil.

Garden President, Bob Gutkowski wanted to be sure and asked to speak with Keenan. The conversation was simple, “Can you work with Neil?” The man who once told the owner of the Flyers, Ed Snider to “Get out of here” and asked the owner of the Blackhawks Bill Wirtz to fire GM Bob Pulford, said “I know I can work with Neil.”

Smith and Gutkowski felt they were so close to the Cup that they gave Keenan the world. The deal was for 5 years, loaded with incentives and bonuses totaling over 5 million. Some of those incentives was a loan of $975,000 to purchase a $1.3 million home in Greenwich, CT and a $50,000 moving allowance from Chicago to NY. Yes, that’s how bad the Rangers wanted to win.

Iron Mike wasted little time reaffirming his reputation with the Ranger players. He immediately went after players he deemed too soft and wanted them out. Darren Turcotte and James Patrick were two guys he set his ire on early and often. During one practice he yelled at Patrick “you’ve been stealing money for years!” They weren’t alone as he would embarrass depth forwards Mike Hartman and Eddie Olczyk continuously.

Keenan didn’t just go after average players, he went after superstars too. During one game he got right in Brian Leetch’s face and said “You’re no f–king Chelios! You’re not as good as anyone tells you you are.” Mike Gartner was another player he thought couldn’t cut it, all those goals be damned. After a loss to Dallas in late February, Iron Mike stormed the locker room and yelled at Gartner “What have you ever done in your life?”. The mild mannered winger was stunned and asked “Excuse Me?” The coach just pressed “You embarrassed yourself out there.” Keenan wanted roster changes and he was going to get them any way possible.

At one time he asked Neil Smith if he would consider trading Sergei Zubov for Stu Grimson, a goon he had in Chicago. Neil said he wouldn’t, but Keenan pressed “would you if it could win the Cup?” Smith said he would do anything for the Cup. Keenan never brought that trade up again, but you knew he just tested his GM and the result would pay off for Keenan often. Starting with getting rid of Turcotte and Patrick to Hartford for Steve Larmer and Nick Kypreos. Other deals would have to wait, but they came at the deadline as Mike Gartner was finally ousted for Glenn Anderson and landing role players like Brian Noonan and  Stephane Matteau for budding star Tony Amonte.

Of course by the deadline the Rangers were heading towards another President’s Trophy, but Keenan now felt he had the roster to compete in the playoffs. It didn’t matter to Keenan that he had forced Neil Smith into mortgaging the Rangers future, he was already plotting on an exit strategy. Was Keenan just a madman or a master motivator? The Rangers finished the regular season with 52-24-8 for 112 points and looked like a well oil machined. Nothing could be further from the truth, because with Keenan, turmoil was always around the corner.

If there was one player who wouldn’t take crap from the head coach, it was backup goalie Glenn Healy. One time Keenan called Healy in his office and asked “What’s the difference between me and Arbour? Tell me, Glenn.” The response was short and to the point “Four Cups.” Keenan looked at Healy and told him to get out of his office none to kindly. It came to a head on March 5th at the Nassau Coliseum when he pulled Richter after 3 goals, then pulled Healy after 1 goal. When Glenn got to the bench he yelled at Keenan “Are you [bleeping] taking me out for that?” The coach looked away and the fiery little goalie ended the argument with a resounding, “You [bleeper]!”

The Rangers would win that game on a late Sergei Zubov goal, breaking the Coliseum curse. After the game Richter was asked what happened, to which he quipped “That’s why there’s a five day waiting period on guns.” Mike Richter was not immune to criticism, once being told he wasn’t as good as Eddie Belfour (Keenan’s goalie in Chicago). Richter admitted that it lit a fire under him to compete harder. Maybe Keenan was a master at getting the most out of his team, but how do you explain not coaching the third period, not once but twice in the season? Yes, as late as March 14th he was so disgusted all he did was ask who wanted to play? The players actually called their line changes and positions in an eventual 2-1 loss to Florida.

At the end of the regular season New York was the best team in the league, but now it was time to translate that into playoff success. Next, we will be going through the Rangers incredible run to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. What you will read will thrill and shock you, because Mike Keenan almost derailed a championship.

THE CURSE IS OVER!

Messier, Leetch and Zubov were key in winning the Cup in 1994 (Getty)
Messier, Leetch and Zubov were key in winning the Cup in 1994 (Getty)

“THE WAITING IS OVER! The New York Rangers are the Stanley Cup Champions, and this one will last a lifetime!” The words still strike a chord in every Ranger fans’ heart.

It’s so hard to believe that it has been 27 years since that June 14th summer day in 1994.

TOTALLY DOMINANT

The NY Rangers drew the rival Islanders in the 1st round. They steamrolled the Islanders 6-0 in the first 2 games and Islander fan chants of “1940” bounced off Rangers fans like they were wearing kevlar vests. The brooms came out as the Rangers completed the sweep at the Nassau Coliseum and the chant “We Want Hextall” was officially born. When that series was over, legendary coach Al Arbour said “They played superbly” and picked them to go all the way.

Game 1April 17New York Islanders0New York Rangers6
Game 2April 18New York Islanders0New York Rangers6
Game 3April 21New York Rangers5New York Islanders1
Game 4April 24New York Rangers5New York Islanders2

Next up were the Caps, another team that gave the Rangers fits in the playoffs. Two words for you, “John Druce”. Only Rangers fans 40 and older will get that. NY pretty much picked up where they left off with the Isles and save for a blip in game 4, marched to the Eastern Conference Finals

Game 1May 1Washington Capitals3New York Rangers6
Game 2May 3Washington Capitals2New York Rangers5
Game 3May 5New York Rangers3Washington Capitals0
Game 4May 7New York Rangers2Washington Capitals4
Game 5May 9Washington Capitals3New York Rangers4

THE GREATEST SERIES EVER

The NJ Devils scratched and clawed their way to the Conference Finals needing 13 out of a possible 14 games to get there. The Devils finished second only to the Rangers in points on the year. New York did beat them all 6 times in the regular season, so this should be in the bag. Anyone who thought that would be proven wrong.

It started with Stephane Richer winning game 1 in Double OT. The Rangers would dominate game 2 allowing that false comfort to sneak back to me. In Game 3 there was some foreshadowing as Stephane Matteau scored in Double OT to give NY the 2-1 series edge. Then all hell broke loose.

The trapping Devils patiently stalked and beat the Rangers back to back to take a 3-2 series lead and put the Rangers on the brink of elimination. By this time Mike Keenan and Neil Smith weren’t even talking. The players were pretty fed up too. After an incident involving a pre-game meal which was a result of a misunderstanding between the two, Joey Kocur approached his old buddy Neil from their Detroit days and said “Why don’t you fire the [bleep]?”

In game 4, Keenan sat Leetch for over 15 minutes. He pulled Richter after only 2-0 and benched Messier as well. What the hell was he doing? Teaching a lesson in the Eastern Conference Finals? This was a Ranger nightmare.

The players were so despondent after the game 5 loss, Messier knew he had to do something. So he told his team that he would talk to Keenan and get their message across. Mess appealed to his stubborn head coach, “We’ve got a great opportunity here, we’re so close. We just have to win this series and we’ll win the Cup. You need to give us every chance to win.” According to the Captain, the message was well received. However, the Rangers were down and needed a lift. They got it the day of game 6 when they saw the headline “WE’LL WIN TONIGHT”.

WE'LL WIN TONIGHT (NYPOST)
WE’LL WIN TONIGHT (NYPOST)

Game Six is easily the greatest Rangers playoff game in franchise history. The start of the game didn’t help as the Devils at home poured it on the Rangers. Before you knew it, NJ took a 2-0 lead. Rangers fans watching the game, slowly became depressed. Was this going to really happen again?

Then the Captain took over. First by setting up Alexei Kovalev to get the Rangers on the board late in the 2nd. That goal, for the first time all game put doubt in every Devils’ players mind. In the third period, Messier completed a game for the ages scoring a hat-trick. The game winner was so impressive as he drove not only the puck past Brodeur but Bernie Nicholls too. The Rangers were going home to play game 7.

One game to play for the right to win the Cup. One game to shave years off the lives of every NYR fan involved. Brian Leetch opened the scoring with a beautiful spin-o-rama goal and it almost held up to win the game. But it’s never easy for the Rangers as Valeri Zelepukin scored off a mad scramble with 7 seconds left to send it to overtime.

“Matteau swoops in to intercept. Matteau behind the net, swings it in front. He scores! Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! Stephane Matteau and the Rangers have one more hill to climb baby and it’s Mount Vancouver. The Rangers are headed to the Finals.” That’s the call no one will ever forget by Howie Rose on WFAN. Just as in game 3, Matteau won it in Double OT! The Cup was now within reach.

Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! (1994 NYR)
Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! (1994 NYR)
Game 1May 15New Jersey Devils4New York Rangers3(2OT)
Game 2May 17New Jersey Devils0New York Rangers4
Game 3May 19New York Rangers3New Jersey Devils2(2OT)
Game 4May 21New York Rangers1New Jersey Devils3
Game 5May 23New Jersey Devils4New York Rangers1
Game 6May 25New York Rangers4New Jersey Devils2
Game 7May 27New Jersey Devils1New York Rangers2(2OT)

SLAYING THE DRAGON

Mark Messier never hid from it. Since day one, he talked about “slaying the dragon”. There was no taboo when it came to talking about the Stanley Cup. Even Mike Keenan had the Rangers put together a video of what it was like to win a championship in New York so they could visualize their goal.

Game one was a stunner as Kirk McLean stopped over 50 shots and a kitchen sink before Greg Adams scored in the extra session.

The Rangers rattled off the next three wins and fans could literally taste the champagne. Brian Leetch was unconscious en route to being the first American ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. Mike Richter was amazingly acrobatic stopping puck after puck, including a Pavel Bure penalty shot. Graves, Kovalev Zubov and Larmer were all contributing too. The Blueshirts were going to end the curse at home!

Then the Rangers lost both Games 5 and 6 with doubt creeping back in to every Rangers fans’ minds. On to Game 7.

Brian Leetch opened the scoring off the prettiest passing play I’ve ever seen. “Messier to Zubov. Zubov feeds Leetch. He scores!” Sam Rosen’s words were as beautiful as the play on TV. Follow that with an Adam Graves tally and John Davidson’s trademark “Oh Baby!” and the Rangers were almost home. Sure the Canucks would cut it down to 1, setting the stage for Mark Messier to score the eventual game winner on the power play.

With 20 minutes to play, Trevor Linden made sure that Ranger fans would not be comfortable. Minutes moved like hours as Vancouver gave it their all, even hitting the post on one glorious chance. Then with seconds on the clock the Rangers cleared the zone. The countdown started in the stands, “5,4,3,2…” icing? What? The greatest moment in NYR history ruined by an icing? Fans were livid, what could go wrong with a little over a second on the clock? Everything. That’s how Ranger fans are built. Yet there was trade deadline acquisition, Craig MacTavish doing what he was brought in to do, win a key face-off. Zero Seconds.

Looking back, that ridiculous icing allowed me the time to savor what the 1994 Rangers accomplished. There was Mark Messier jumping like a kid on the playground. Mike Richter and Brian Leetch with arms raised high then dropped into an embrace. The two kids from the Rangers system were now Champions. In the background I can see Steve Larmer still checking his man, he never quit on a play. Finally the Rangers were Champions.

“After 54 years, your long wait is over. Captain Mark Messier, come get the Stanley Cup.” were the words commissioner Gary Bettman belted into the microphone. The moment Messier laid his hands on the Cup it became official, we were the champs. The Captain’s smile went from ear to ear. He shook uncontrollably as he hoisted the Cup over his head. Fans in the stands and at home were raising their arms overhead too. Almost like they could feel the Cup in their hands as if they were all number 11 himself.

1994 Cup
Mark Messier: The Slayer of Curses (AP)
Game 1May 31Vancouver Canucks3New York Rangers2(OT)
Game 2June 2Vancouver Canucks1New York Rangers3
Game 3June 4New York Rangers5Vancouver Canucks1
Game 4June 7New York Rangers4Vancouver Canucks2
Game 5June 9Vancouver Canucks6New York Rangers3
Game 6June 11New York Rangers1Vancouver Canucks4
Game 7June 14Vancouver Canucks2New York Rangers3

Sources:

NHLGM.com

Wikipedia

Losing the Edge by Barry Meisel

And my own personal memory and experience