‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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‘The dark years’ are generally defined by Rangers fans as 1997-2004. During this stretch, the Blueshirts missed the playoffs seven consecutive seasons and failed to reach the .500 mark in each year.
Two members of the 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame nearly joined the Rangers at a time when the franchise desperately needed someone to shoulder the scoring burden.
1) Joe Sakic nearly became a Ranger
Ten days after Mark Messier joined the Vancouver Canucks in the summer of 1997, the Rangers extended a three-year $21 million dollar contract to the Avalanche captain. Sakic agreed to terms with the Rangers and Colorado was given seven days to match the offer sheet.
Sakic clearly had one eye on ‘The Big Apple.’ He told reporters after signing the offer sheet, “It’s something I really didn’t think about too much, but the offer came, and I’m pretty happy about it.”
He continued, “I was stunned by the offer. I know I’ll be playing here in a place I love, or I’ll be going to the great city of New York. I know I’ll be going to training camp, and in one week I’ll know where.”
Despite their on-ice success, the Avalanche were having financial difficulties and strongly considered not retaining Sakic.
Colorado’s ownership group Ascent Entertainment had lost $36 million on revenues of $258 million. For the three months ending March of 1997, the company lost another $17.6 million.
Eventually, the group were able put together enough profits generated from the hit movie ‘Air Force One’ to match the Rangers’ offer and retained Sakic.
To add insult to injury, Avalanche owner Charlie Lyons sent Rangers’ General Manager Neil Smith a photo of Nelson Rockefeller flipping the bird after the Avalanche matched the Rangers’ offer sheet.
What if the movie was a flop rather than a box office smash-hit and the Avalanche failed to pull together enough money to keep their sensational captain and eventual 12-time All-Star?
Certainly, the Rangers’ gloomy era would have changed dramatically had Sakic joined Wayne Gretzky to give the Blueshirts a one-two punch of elite centerman following Messier’s departure.
“If Mark were back, we would not have gone after Joe. When Mark left, Joe was the one we wanted,” Neil Smith said in 1997.
Instead, the Rangers were forced to acquire Pat LaFontaine from the Buffalo Sabres. Even after suffering multiple concussions, LaFontaine proved to be a successful one-year addition but the Rangers slumped to a 25-39-19 season that paved the way for the miserable years that followed.
Outside of Brian Leetch, Adam Graves and Wayne Gretzky, there wasn’t much for Rangers fans to cheer about during ‘the dark ages.’ Shortly into the 1998-99 season, Alexei Kovalev was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in deal that brought Petr Nedved to back to the Rangers.
Kovalev went on to have his best years with the Penguins from 1998-2003. He was traded to the Rangers in February 2003 for a short, unsuccessful period before again being moved to the Montreal Canadiens in March 2004 where he blossomed into an All-Star.
It turned out to be a horrendous deal for the Rangers who received Josef Balej and a second round draft pick in return for Kovalev.
2) Had the Rangers acquired Pavel Bure in 1999, Gretzky would have played another year
The Rangers passed on landing scoring ace Pavel Bure in February 1999. This was the final nail driven into Wayne Gretzky’s decision to retire from the game in 1999.
Had Neil Smith pulled off the deal, Gretzky would have been paired with the most electrifying player in the game in Bure, who was at the peak of his powers at 27. Bure was a 90-plus point-getter in the height of ‘The Dead Puck Era.’
Gretzky revealed before the 1999-2000 season had the Rangers acquired Bure, he would have stuck around for another year.
Canucks’ General Manager Brian Burke demanded the Rangers’ first round pick in the 1999 draft, Niklas Sundstrom, Dan Cloutier and Manny Malhotra in exchange for Bure but Smith balked at Burke’s asking price.
“That’s not my responsibility,” Gretzky said after Bure joined the Panthers. “That’s Ranger management. We’d all love to have guys like Pavel here. It didn’t work out. I will say this, Miami fans are in for a treat. He’s worth every penny they pay him,” Gretzky told Filip Bondy of The Daily News in 1999.
The feeling was mutual as Bure desperately wanted the chance to play with Gretzky in New York.
”I think it’s the biggest compliment I ever received or ever will receive in my life,” Bure said. ”I consider him the best player to ever play the game, and there is nobody else who will ever get close.”
Bure eventually became a Ranger in March 2002. By that time, recurring knee injuries curtailed a brilliant career. Still, Bure showed Rangers fans flashes of greatness. He totaled 50 points in 51 games over two seasons as Ranger before multiple knee surgeries ended his career.
Both of these almost acquisitions really makes you wonder what the Rangers could have accomplished during their lean years. Certainly, their seven-year playoff drought would have been avoided had they acquired Sakic at his peak years to replace Messier and paired him or Gretzky with an offensive weapon like Pavel Bure before injuries dragged down Bure’s career.
Perhaps, the Rangers would have lifted a Stanley Cup or two had Sakic became ‘Broadway Joe.’ A team of Gretzky, Sakic, Bure, Leetch, Graves and Richter would have been contenders in the late 90’s NHL.
Would Rangers history have changed dramatically had they acquired Sakic in 1997? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.