By Jason Keidel
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It’s no secret that New Yorkers have an elitist streak.
We think our city is the best because, well, it is. And the self-indulgence bleeds into sports. We think the Giants are the model NFL franchise; that Madison Square Garden is the cradle of college and pro basketball and boxing; and the Yankees are the franchise nonpareil.
But no matter your team or town there are certain, crossover verities that make all sports essential theater.
And, Thursday night, inside MSG, the Rangers made believers out of their fans, and fans out of non-believers.
And for whatever flippant, ignorant remarks I’ve made about hockey as a low-rent sport for cold-weather freaks, I apologize.
You could not watch that game and not be drawn toward the television like a mosquito on a sweaty neck, eyes bulging and heart thumping and adrenaline squirting like the first time you watched The Exorcist. For the layman, it was impossible to not keep one eye on the puck and another on the clock. A minute seemed to take an hour, while we hung on every hop of the puck, every referee’s whistle, and every scissor-kick save from a goalie.
You have the timeless narratives of efficient offense and rugged defense. The Rangers kept slapping the puck at Montreal’s net, while the Canadiens got nary a shot off at King Henrik. And, like a white-hot pitcher carrying a club to the World Series, it seems the Rangers have a scalding goalie ready to win four more games, and reopen the portal to two decades ago, deep down memory lane.
I’ve attended two hockey games in my life. I’m barely able to name two players on one team. Yet when the clock struck zero I danced around my apartment like I won Lotto.
The Rangers made us party like it was 1994. And if you were alive and lucid in New York City back then, you recall the magic murmuring up the streets, from Herald Square to Harlem.
You had the Rangers, of course, who were in the harrowing stage of a Stanley Cup drought, not so much a sip from the chalice since the Battle of the Bulge. Then Mark Messier’s mojo changed everything, between his guarantee, hat trick, and the rest of his playoff heroics. Rabid hockey fans became part-time basketball devotees and hardcore hardwood fans took a shine to skates.
Lest we forget, the Rangers weren’t the only Big Apple behemoth 20 years ago. The Yankees were in the embryonic stages of their empire. Joe Torre had yet to sprinkle his faerie dust on the dynasty, but the pieces were gathering, and the team was 70-43 before a work stoppage nixed the World Series.
the Core Four was post-pubescent and a year from taking the Yanks back to their ancestral perch atop the sport. We recall 1995, when Jim Leyritz awakened the October ghosts, only to watch in horror at Jack McDowell in relief and Ken Griffey Jr huffing around third base to break our hearts in Game 5. But in 1994 we could see that the Yanks were young, with enough talent and temerity to last them a while.
And the Knicks were vibrant, vital, and often victorious. Pat Riley brought Armani and an armory of rugged ballers back to the Garden, belying his slick, Showtime persona. He changed his basketball blueprint from a Ferrari to a Humvee.
The Knicks, like the rest of the NBA, got a reprieve from Jordan. His Airness decided he’d rather worry about double plays than double nickels. And the Knicks took full advantage, muscling through the far less formidable, Scottie Pippen Bulls and the loquacious Reggie Miller Pacers into the NBA Finals, and a classic big-man match-up between college and pro rivals, Patrick Ewing vs Hakeem Olajuwon.
New York City was the main nerve of American sports. The Yankees were cruising in first place, the best record in the American League, and had yet to twirl down the drain of the baseball lockout.
We remember the split-screen drama of the Knicks and Rangers, the city’s pulse pumping with each goal and field goal and free throw. And there was the geographical splendor of having both teams in the same hub. Madison Square Garden changed from wood to ice and back, the stands stuffed with bulky hockey jerseys or the tank tops of hoops.
If that weren’t enough, the twin, twisting narratives were wedged by surreal, seismic events in California, the soap-operatic equivalent of an earthquake.
That would be June 17, when our programming, and our lives, were interrupted by the cinematic footage of O.J. Simpson running from the law, the funereal feel of the Bronco inching down some forlorn freeway like a white coffin, packs of rabid observers jumping, waving, and shrieking from every overpass. We watched the Knicks on one side of the screen, and on the other side we gawked at the morbid procession of a single car heading toward its doom, a phalanx of cops behind him.
But not even the “Juice” could drain the juice out of NYC sports. You can decide if Simpson ultimately got what he deserved. On the sports scene, it turns out only the Rangers won a title. The Knicks fell a John Starks jumper short of the Rockets. The Yankees never got a chance to perhaps play Montreal for a World Series ring. Perhaps the Rangers vanquished Montreal for the Yanks.
And it may turn out that the Rangers are the only New York team with a real shot at a championship this year. Lord knows the Knicks aren’t in the running, and the Yankees, with all their guts and grit, are just too pitching-deprived to make a real run at October.
But, for a fleeting, enchanted evening, the Rangers took us back to a better time — when we were younger, our teams and our town were tougher, and we New Yorkers could say with certainty that no matter where you looked along the five boroughs, you could find us fighting for a championship.
Even if the Rangers don’t win the Stanley Cup, on Thursday night they reminded us of why we were once so great.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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