By Peter Schwartz
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1994 was a memorable year in sports.
The Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII. The World Cup took place in the United States. The players’ strike forced the cancellation of the World Series. The Houston Rockets beat the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals.
And the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup.
As the Rangers prepare for this season’s Eastern Conference finals, it’s amazing to think that it’s been 20 years since that faceoff on June 14 with 1.6 seconds left at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers finished off a 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to end their 54-year championship drought.
Rangers fans of all ages can relive all the excitement of that championship season with a new book from longtime NHL writer John Kreiser entitled “The Wait Is Over: The New York Rangers and the 1994 Stanley Cup.”
“The Rangers had the best team, made all the right moves, and still had to sweat out a Game 7 right to the end,” said Kreiser. “They were a team rather than a bunch of individuals. That teamwork helped to make the difference.”
Kreiser recounts that magical season thanks to numerous interviews with players, coaches and broadcasters. There are many stories to tell about the 1994 Rangers and “The Captain” Mark Messier.
It’s been well documented how important Messier was in the Rangers ending their long quest for a championship. He’s arguably the greatest leader in the history of pro sports and is a six-time Stanley Cup Champion. In 1994, Messier was outstanding.
With the Rangers trailing the Devils 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals, he guaranteed a victory in Game 6 and scored a hat trick as the Rangers evened the series.
So what made Messier so special?
“Messier wanted to win,” said Kreiser. “To an extent that I don’t think we’d ever seen. Certainly to an extent that no one connected with the Rangers had ever seen. They were Messier’s team from the instant he showed up. I had covered them since the 1970s and had never seen anything like him. He wanted to win … everything else was secondary.”
Messier had the Rangers believing all season. They finished with the best record in the NHL and won the President’s Trophy for the second time in three years. They swept the Islanders in the opening round of the playoffs and then took care of the Capitals in five games before seven-game victories over the Devils and Canucks to win the Stanley Cup.
When did Kreiser think that the Rangers had a team that could win it all?
“Humorously, I’d say it was when the final buzzer went off to end Game 7 of the final,” joked Kreiser. “Realistically, I’d say around Christmas. By then, they were on a roll. Also, the trades Neil Smith made at the deadline were like a booster shot.”
One of the key acquisitions during the season was Stephane Matteau. He will always be remembered by Rangers fans for his heroics against the Devils in the Eastern Conference finals. He scored the Game 3 winner in double overtime and then scored the series winner in Game 7, beating Martin Brodeur on a wraparound at 4:24 of the second overtime.
That gave birth to a memorable call from Rangers radio broadcaster Howie Rose:
“Fetisov for the Devils play it cross-ice…into the far corner…Matteau swoops in to intercept…Matteau behind the net….swings it in front….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!”
For the book, Kreiser spoke to Rose about his out-of-body experience in the broadcast booth that night. Rose, now the Islanders television voice, recalled how his classic call could have been a colossal waste of breath.
“He said he was afraid for a few minutes that Esa Tikkanen might have touched the puck, which would have spoiled the whole thing,” said Kreiser.
It’s still amazing to me how a guy who will always be remembered for calling one of the great moments in Rangers history is now calling Islanders games!
But now let’s get back to 1994.
The architect of the Rangers’ Stanley Cup team was president and general manager Neil Smith, who wrote the foreword for the book. Kreiser spent quite a bit of time with Smith — and rightfully so since he was a big reason why the Rangers won.
Smith became the Rangers GM in 1989 and the Blueshirts subsequently won the Patrick Division title, the Rangers’ first championship of any kind since 1942. Along the way to the Stanley Cup, he acquired Messier and Esa Tikkanen while drafting Alexi Kovalev. He traded Guy Lafleur for a draft pick that became Sergei Zubov.
Smith made a number of moves during the championship season to fine-tune the club, including the acquisitions of players like Steve Larmer, Matteau and Brian Noonan from the Blackhawks, Craig MacTavish from the Oilers and Glenn Anderson from the Maple Leafs.
“Neil largely traded his way to a Cup which is almost impossible to do,” said Kreiser. “Remember, free agency wasn’t around so you couldn’t just sign stars. Within three years of (Smith) arriving in New York, the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy. Two years later, they won the Cup.”
Winning that Stanley Cup was a huge accomplishment for Smith, Keenan, Messier and the entire Rangers organization, but should they have won more than just the one title? That team was loaded, kind of the like baseball’s Atlanta Braves club of the 1990s that won just one World Series.
Is it fair to say that the Rangers should have won multiple cups?
“In theory, maybe, but the goal was to win one,” said Kreiser. “Neil said he had been told to do whatever he had to do to win — and he did.”
Follow Peter on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan
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