The Epic Story of the Champion New York Rangers and what it was like in the Summer of 94.
Today is 26 years to the day when the Rangers ended the 54 year curse and lifted the Stanley Cup. Here is their story, and to a lesser degree mine. Come walk with me as I retell what led to the 94 Cup and what it was like to live through it as a fan.
“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 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 doing… 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 2 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 take on the biggest challenge in pro hockey.
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. That year, Neil put the league on notice that he was ready to do whatever he could to win a Cup in NY.
In the 1990 playoffs, 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 still, Smith’s first season was a success as the Rangers won the Patrick Division for the first time ever. The following season 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.
Neil Smith Gets His Man
On October 4th, 1991 in what is still the greatest trade in Rangers history, Smith landed 5 time Cup winner Mark Messier and future considerations 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 lost for the year. 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
“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 to 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 in Keenan’s eyes, 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.
TRADE THESE GUYS NOW!
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 (more on that in part 4). 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 f–king taking me out for that?” The coach looked away and the fiery little goalie ended the argument with a resounding, “You c–ksucker!”
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. In part 3 of this series, 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!
“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 26 years since that June 14th summer day in 1994. I was in my early 20’s and remember my single purpose being centered around the Blueshirts. I even took white shoe polish and wrote on my back windshield:
LET’S GO RANGERS
Yes, I was a fanatic and I want to feel that way again, one more time. That feeling of believing and giving myself to a Rangers team that deserved their first Stanley Cup win in 54 years.
The NY Rangers drew the rival Islanders in the 1st round. This fan will not lie, I was worried. The thought of being knocked out by the Islanders who the year before made it to the Eastern Conference Finals made me physically ill. Being a New Yorker working on Long Island, I knew way too many Isles fans. And they reminded of “1940” every day.
NY steamrolled the Islanders 6-0 in the first 2 games and my chest swelled with pride. All of a sudden Islander fan chants of “1940” bounced off of me like I was wearing a bullet proof vest. 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 1||April 17||New York Islanders||0||New York Rangers||6|
|Game 2||April 18||New York Islanders||0||New York Rangers||6|
|Game 3||April 21||New York Rangers||5||New York Islanders||1|
|Game 4||April 24||New York Rangers||5||New York Islanders||2|
Next up were the Caps, another team that gave the Rangers fits in the playoffs. Two words for ya, “John Druce”. Only Rangers fans 30 and older will get that. Regardless, I was worried again. 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 1||May 1||Washington Capitals||3||New York Rangers||6|
|Game 2||May 3||Washington Capitals||2||New York Rangers||5|
|Game 3||May 5||New York Rangers||3||Washington Capitals||0|
|Game 4||May 7||New York Rangers||2||Washington Capitals||4|
|Game 5||May 9||Washington Capitals||3||New York Rangers||4|
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. For some reason, I was really confident even though they finished second only to the Rangers in points on the year. Hell, we beat them all 6 times we faced them in the regular season, right? Oh boy! I couldn’t have been more 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. Heck, I even took the white shoe polish back out to freshen up my car sign. 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 f_ck?”
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”.
Game Six is easily the greatest Rangers playoff game in franchise history. There I was in my traditional spot on the couch with my Marlboro Mediums and Orange Juice with ice. I’ve long since quit smoking, but there is no doubt between the smokes and the acid in the OJ that I have really bad acid reflux today! The start of the game didn’t help as the Devils at home poured it on the Rangers. Before you knew it, they took a 2-0 lead. I was close to vomiting and crying, at the same time.
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 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.
|Game 1||May 15||New Jersey Devils||4||New York Rangers||3||(2OT)|
|Game 2||May 17||New Jersey Devils||0||New York Rangers||4|
|Game 3||May 19||New York Rangers||3||New Jersey Devils||2||(2OT)|
|Game 4||May 21||New York Rangers||1||New Jersey Devils||3|
|Game 5||May 23||New Jersey Devils||4||New York Rangers||1|
|Game 6||May 25||New York Rangers||4||New Jersey Devils||2|
|Game 7||May 27||New Jersey Devils||1||New York Rangers||2||(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. Now for the first time in my Ranger fan life, I BELIEVED!
Game one was a stunner as Kirk McLean stopped over 50 shots and a kitchen sink before Greg Adams scored in the extra session. “NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER” that was my rally cry and I was sticking to it.
The Rangers rattled off the next three wins and I could literally taste the champagne. We were dominating! 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.
Just like every other Ranger fan I had Stanley Cup fever! I was so cocky that I did the unthinkable. My uncle, the man who showed me my first ever Rangers game on channel 9 versus Detroit with Bob Froese in net, invited me to his house Cup party. So, I left behind my traditional spot on the couch at home and took my act there. The Rangers lost game five 6-3 and I swore, never again.
“Come on. We’re better than Vancouver” I assured myself. They’ll win it in 6. Nope! Here we go again. Now I am in full panic mode and nasty as a dog crapping tacks. Still there I was, stoic in the face of every Islander fan chanting “1940” as I took out my white shoe polish one last time. Gently going over the letters one by one:
LET’S GO RANGERS
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 the Rangers real MVP, 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. So again, I lit my cigarette and chucked my OJ praying for the time to fly. 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 5,4,3,2, icing? What? The greatest moment in history ruined by an icing? I was livid, what could go wrong with a little over a second on the clock? Everything. That’s how we 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, “MY” 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. Sitting at home, I raised my arms overhead too. I could feel the Cup in my hands as if I were number 11 himself.
Shortly after the locker room celebration began my doorbell rang. It was my uncle, who drove from Glendale to Middle Village and planted a kiss on my lips! No, it wasn’t awkward. It was awesome and fitting coming from the man who introduced me to my life long passion. We went out and partied at a fine “gentlemen’s establishment” into the wee hours of the morning.
To all my younger readers, I hope you read this piece and find yourself hungry for a Ranger Cup memory of your own. To those of you as old or older than me, I hope you enjoyed reliving the 1994 Cup through my memories. I know I loved every second of sharing it with you all.
|Game 1||May 31||Vancouver Canucks||3||New York Rangers||2||(OT)|
|Game 2||June 2||Vancouver Canucks||1||New York Rangers||3|
|Game 3||June 4||New York Rangers||5||Vancouver Canucks||1|
|Game 4||June 7||New York Rangers||4||Vancouver Canucks||2|
|Game 5||June 9||Vancouver Canucks||6||New York Rangers||3|
|Game 6||June 11||New York Rangers||1||Vancouver Canucks||4|
|Game 7||June 14||Vancouver Canucks||2||New York Rangers||3|
THE GREAT CELEBRATION
“I won’t be coming into work tomorrow, so fire me if you want!” Those were my exact words when the City announced the Parade for Friday, June 17th.
There was no way I was missing this celebration, this culmination of the greatest year in my life to date. A month shy of my 21st birthday, things were shaping up to be a great summer and I was ready to party.
It was about 90 degrees that day, but with all the people, it fell like 110! No one cared, no one fought, no one got angry. People hugged and cheered. Homemade Stanley Cups were being passed around like candy on Halloween. This wasn’t a parade, it was a tribute to the NY Ranger Faithful! Over 1 million people lined the streets in the Canyon of Heroes all the way to City Hall. That’s where I was, waiting to see Mark Messier come down those steps with Lord Stanley raised high!
My mother, sister, girlfriend, her brother, my best friend, my mom’s best friend and her son pushed our way towards the railing. We could see all those seated had special passes to be there. In a stroke of luck, the heat was too much and the day too long for a mom and her little boy. A she made her way towards the railing she handed over the special pass to my mom’s friend. It was only one, and since I was decorated like a Rangers Christmas tree, she lovingly gave it to me.
I pushed my way up close…just how close, you are about to see. The ceremony began and the staff and players were called out one by one. Then finally, Mayor Giuliani called out his name, and Mark Messier came out with the Stanley Cup. CLICK!
There I stood, barely 75′ away from my heroes. I soaked it all in. I remember each player being given a key to the City. The smile on their faces as big as everyone’s in the crowd. Eddie Olcyzk took to the mic and yelled ” Heave-Ho Two In Row”, I could see players laughing. How lucky was I to be sharing in this moment, with the greatest hockey team in the world. Even Neil Smith and Mike Keenan shared a rare laugh. Some players, like Jeff Beukeboom kept soaking it all in. CLICK!
Neil Smith addressed the crowd saying “We did this for you, the fans!”. Mike Keenan took to the podium with the crowd chanting “4 MORE YEARS!”, to which he replied “We love the pressure, don’t we.” All the while Joey Kocur was smirking as if he knew, Keenan was going to walk away. And finally, the Captain came to speak. Mark Douglas Messier, who wore his heart on his sleeve smiled, laughed and of course, got choked up. What he said resonated through us all. “Mike Keenan said, you win at this and you’ll walk together for the rest of our lives. I’ve experienced this before and I can honestly tell you that is the honestest truth. We will walk together for the rest of our lives.”
As the ceremony wrapped up, I made my way past security. One cop gave me a look, but he understood. With my camera in hand, I got within 20 feet and snapped the greatest picture of my Ranger loving life. A moment frozen in time. CLICK!
Heading back home, the train ride was like flying on clouds. The smile on my face went from ear to ear. I’m sure I wiped a tear away (or 50) as well. You see, the skate around the ice after game 7 was really for the players, but that trip down the Canyon of Heroes, that was for us. All of us! The Grandfathers, the Dads and the Sons. For the Wives, Moms and Daughters. For all the young fans who were not born or to young to understand. When Messier said we would walk together forever, I thought he meant for him and his teammates. No, I was wrong, he meant it for all of us.
Actually, come to think of it. I hope that mom and her kid are alright.
Losing the Edge by Barry Meisel