2004-06-11 / Sports

Rangers 94 Championship Memories Remain Strong

Hockey Columnist
By Andrei Petrovitch

Rangers 94 Championship Memories Remain Strong

By Andrei Petrovitch

Hockey Columnist

"And this one will last a lifetime!" When announcer Sam Rosen yelled this sentence on June 14th, 1994, he wasn’t kidding. That evening is still one of the most cherished in New York history, for it was when the Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks by a score of 3-2 to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years.

I was 17 at the time. As a junior at Murray Bergtraum High School, the Rangers’ championship quest was, girls and rock and roll aside, my major obsession. My father had taken me to see my first Ranger game seven years earlier, and from that moment I prayed for the day when the sad-sack loser franchise would finally raise the Cup in glory. However, it had always seemed as if that day would never come. Whenever the team would play on the road, the opposition’s fans would scream "NINETEEN FORTY," a derisive reference to the Rangers’ last championship season. I remember feeling almost personally slighted by those chants – it was almost as if those fans were mocking New York City, and indirectly, me.

The team’s fortunes started to change in the early ‘90s. General Manager Neil Smith helped the team move out of the morass of the Phil Esposito era with his acquisition of Mark Messier from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for the underachieving Bernie Nicholls and two forgotten prospects.

Other all-stars arrived quickly soon after from Western Alberta: defenseman Kevin Lowe for Roman Oskiuta, checker Esa Tikkanen for Doug Weight, Jeff Beukeboom for David Shaw, Adam Graves for Troy Mallete. Augmenting this veteran core were young stars like Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, and Sergei Zubov. With abusive taskmaster Mike Keenan as head coach, the Rangers won 52 out of 84 games in the 1993-94 season and finshed first overall. The team swept the rival New York Islanders in the first round and went on to trample the Washington Capitals in five games in the second.

The championship ride hit a major speed bump in the third round against the upstart New Jersey Devils. Jersey quickly took a 3-2 series lead going into game 6, and it seemed as if the chants would continue. I distinctly remember not eating that evening; I figured I wouldn’t be able to keep anything down if the Rangers lost. It turned out that missing out on mom’s cooking was a bad idea. Messier scored a hat trick, forcing a seventh game and fulfilling a promise of victory made the previous day. The Rangers went on to win that game in double overtime, sending them into the finals for the first time since 1979 against the Montreal Canadiens.

"What the F*#@ is a Canuck?!?!"

That was the profound question uttered by my brother on the eve of the first game of the Finals. "I dunno… maybe it’s some kinda flower," I postulated. "Eh, it sounds retarded to me," my brother said, while chomping on yet another heart-attack inducing omelet. Great, I thought. The National Hockey League has long yearned for a way out of the slums of America’s sporting consciousness, and it’s flagship big-market team is gonna face off in the championship round against…a team with a ridiculous name from a city many New Yorkers couldn’t find on a map.

Oh, but what a thrilling series it was! The penalty shot save by goalie Mike Richer against sniper Pavel Bure, the heart breaking Ranger losses of games 5 and 6, and the triumph of Game 7. My mind’s eye still sees Steve Larmer arguing with the refs about a last minute icing call…Craig Mactavish taking the final face-off with 1.1 seconds remaining…and Messier leaping for joy the very moment the buzzer sounded. You’ve probably noticed that I’m only mentioning scenes from the final moments. That’s because, while my brother was watching the final game in the living room, popping his head into my room periodically to feed me the score, I was furiously typing away a mandatory "extra-credit" assignment for school. Nevertheless, I rushed into the living room for the final five minutes to partake in the celebration.

When the game ended, I though to myself, they won. WE’VE won. And now, those idiots in Toronto, Pittsburgh, Quebec – hell, even Uniondale – can no longer make fun of the Rangers. Of New York. Of me, dammit!!!

"Can I get those in a size 9?"

This became a popular question in the summer of 1994. The Rangers made hockey hip in New York. People who previously wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between a check and a Czech were rushing to their local Modells to buy Roller blades. Hockey jerseys of all types became the fashion statement de jour, and the Rangers were Page Six regulars. Like any summer fling, the fascination with hockey, and the Rangers, didn’t last long. A League lockout wiped out two-thirds of the following season, robbing hockey of the media attention it had previously worked so hard to attain. The Rangers’ fortunes plummeted as well in the following years; After making it to the conference finals in 1997, the Ranger have missed the playoffs for seven straight years, burning through six coaches, two general managers (Smith was fired in 2000 and replaced with Glen Sather) and literally more than a hundred players. The franchise has returned to its previous position as league laughingstock. Hockey jerseys have been relegated to tacky rap videos.

But on the tenth anniversary, none of this matter to me. All I care to remember are the saves, the goals, and the celebrations…and how the chant of "nineteen forty" was silenced forever on that warm night in the summer of 1994.

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