The 1994 Rangers…And This One Will Last a Lifetime

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“The waiting is over. The New York Rangers are the Stanley Cup Champions!” – Sam Rosen

The Date: June, 14th 1994

The Place: Madison Square Garden, New York City

The Occasion: Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Match-up: Vancouver Canucks @ New York Rangers

With 1.6 seconds left to go in regulation time and with the score 3-2 Rangers, Blueshirt center Craig MacTavish lined up against Canucks All Star Pavel Bure for one final face-off. The puck was dropped, MacTavish used his feet to steer that round piece of vulcanized rubber away from the “Russian Rocket” towards safety, the clock struck all zeros and Rangers broadcaster Sam Rosen would emphatically utter that iconic phrase that the Garden Faithful could forever more recite verbatim. For those of us who grew up and grew weary during the “1940” era, hearing Mr. Rosen belt out those nine memorable words was truly a life altering experience. And yes Sammy, this one will last a lifetime…

The New York Rangers were part of a Bermuda Triangle of sorts as being one of three sports teams to endure through a decades long championship drought brought on by an alleged curse. The others being the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, of course. The apparent story goes that Red Dutton, who was the owner of Garden III’s other hockey inhabitant, the New York Americans, blamed the rousing early success of the Rangers for his team’s demise and eventual extinction in 1942. He supposedly became so enraged and incensed that he stated the “Rangers would never win another Stanley Cup in his lifetime”.

Ranger fans, and especially the New York media, would use Dutton’s prophecy to explain why the Blueshirts failed to win hockey’s top prize year after year after frustrating year. The Rangers continuous ineptitude had nothing to do with Voodoo and everything to do with incompetence. Still, many used the curse of Red Dutton to illustrate why the Rangers had the fewest Stanley Cup banners of all the Original Six teams. In 1950, 1972 and 1979, the Rangers came oh so close to nullifying any existence of a curse making it to the Cup Finals in each of those three seasons. Excruciating losses to the Red Wings, Bruins and Canadians only solidified the belief that there was a dark, ominous cloud hovering over the World’s Most Famous Arena.

After the five game series loss to Montreal in the 1979 finals, the Rangers would go on to tantalize their jaded and discontented fans base for the next 15 seasons. Whether it was playoff losses to their dreaded rivals from Long Island starting in 1981 and lasting through 1984: Whether it was the 1986 series loss to Patrick Roy and the Canadians in the Whales Conference Finals: Whether it was John MacLean’s overtime goal on the NHL’s final day of the 1988 season to put the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs and send the Rangers packing for an early vacation: Whether it was the obscure John Druce of the Washington Capitals, almost single handily, knocking the Rangers out of the 1990 playoffs: Whether it was the infamous “Ron Francis Goal” in game 4 of the 1992 second round playoff series with the Penguins, the patience and perseverance of Ranger fans were tested and pushed to the limit like never before.

The 1991-92 Rangers were the best regular season team in the NHL. If Mike Richter had made what should have been a routine save off Francis’ 60-foot harmless slap shot, would the Blueshirts have gone on to win the cup that year? We’ll never know the answer to that query. However, what we did know was if the Rangers were ever going to slay the 1940 dragon, they’d need better goal-tending, more roster depth and enough championship experience in their locker room to combat the non-stop conveyor belt of Red Dutton references and taunting 1940 howls.

Neil Smith was the man who built a winner. (AP)

General manager Neil Smith, who had just witnessed his team suffer the indignity of missing the NHL playoffs, started building what would become the 1994 Rangers in the middle of April,1993 with the hiring of the fiery, demanding and controversial head coach Mike Keenan. Smith knew that docile, placid and equable “player’s coaches” had run its course in Rangerstown and it was time to hire a taskmaster. Kennan laid down the law and would immediately put an impetus on tough practices and fierce competition. Keenan’s “take no prisoners” credo was starting to have its desired affect, and after back-to-back late October disappointing losses to Anaheim and Tampa Bay, the Rangers would start a stretch of winning hockey that catapulted them to first place where they’d stay for the duration of the regular season.

As the Rangers were making their way to running rough shod over the rest of the NHL winning their second President’s Trophy in three seasons, Keenan and Smith decided there wasn’t enough moxie in the line-up. That combustible duo reshaped the roster, adding one grizzled veteran after another throughout the regular season, sacrificing a plethora of talented young players and fan-favorites along the way. They were all in. It was Stanley Cup or bust. Smith and Keenan, with their contentious relationship and provocative trade deadline transactions, proclaimed unequivocally that it was time for the 1940 “Goliath” to be slayed and the collection of soldiers, lead by Mark Messier, were the “Davids” to do it

In the first round of the 1994 playoffs, the Rangers met their not-so-friendly suburban neighbors to the east. The Blueshirts proceeded to annihilate the Islanders in four humiliating defeats outscoring the team from Uniondale by a combined tally of 22-3. Next up was another familiar playoff foe, the Washington Capitals. The Blueshirts would dust off the hockey team that knocked them out of the 1990 and 1991 playoffs in five relatively easy affairs.

For the first time since 1986. the Rangers made it to the NHL’s version of the Final Four. Their opponent, the last hurdle before the Stanley Cup Finals, would be their bitter rivals from across the Hudson River, the New Jersey Devils. In what was thought of as being the greatest playoff series of all time, the Rangers won this epic, exhilarating and gratifying series four games to three. This seven game war was memorable and unforgettable for a myriad of different reasons, Most of which was the Mark Messier game 6 performance in which the “Messiah” guaranteed his Ranger team would come out victorious and then scored a third period hat trick to send that series to seventh heaven. Game 7 back at the Garden would end in double overtime with radio broadcaster Howie Rose’s vociferous and now legendary repeat calling of a French Canadian surname. “Matteau. Matteau. Matteau”. The Rangers were now in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1979.

The ultimate fight for hockey’s holy grail should have been nothing but a coronation for the vastly superior squad from Manhattan. After all, the Rangers had 27 more points during the regular season than their Pacific northwest opponent. However, the Vancouver Canucks had different plans as they scratched and clawed their way back from a 3 games to 1 series deficit, forcing another epic Garden game 7.

Larmer 1994

On the night of June 14th, 1994, behind two first period goals and a Mike Richter goal-tending performance for the ages, the Rangers hung on to defeat Vancouver 3-2, culminating with the MacTavish face-off win, and for the first time since, say it with me now, “1940” the New York Rangers had won the Stanley Cup. David had, in fact, slayed Goliath using a hockey stick instead of a sling-shot. There was an unbridled euphoria in Rangerstown. There was shock and disbelief in Uniondale. 1940, the curse of Red Dutton, decades of failures and frustration were exterminated. Those of us Ranger fans who lived on Long Island could finally wear as much Ranger memorabilia as we wanted with complete impunity. The days of having anti-Ranger epithets hurled at us were over.

On February 8th, 2019, the collection of champions, whom Mike Keenan declared would walk together forever, will be honored on the same ice surface in which history was made some 25 years prior. Minus the late Alexander Karpovtsev, who tragically lost his life in a plane crash in his native Russia in 2011, the entire 1994 Rangers will walk into the arena as conquering heroes and get the thunderous and elongated ovation that they deserve.

Mark Messier. Brian Leetch. Mike Richter. Adam Graves. Steve Larmer. Jeff Beukeboom. Alex Kovalev. Sergei Zubov. My goodness, just typing the names of these valiant Rangers is giving me goosebumps. These were the players that did it. These were the players that starred down adversity of monumental proportions and accomplished a feat that 53 prior Ranger teams and 25 teams since could not do. Over 18,000 of the proud, thankful and grateful Garden Faithful will drown the 1994 Rangers with adoration, adulation and applause on the night of February 8th with the hope that the current roster of players will see up close what a champion is supposed to look like.

25 years is a long time. Too long for a franchise that routinely has one of the highest payrolls in the NHL. It’s time to build the next great Ranger team. It’s time to gather the next collection of heroes. It’s time to make room on the Garden’s iconic ceiling for another Stanley Cup banner. It’s time!

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