Oral History: The 1994 New York Rangers Cup run

Rangers Cup

With a grumpy, gun-for-hire coach, a swap of Hall of Famers and ‘The Guarantee,’ New York’s drought-ending season was one for the ages

WITH MATT LARKIN AND RONNIE SHUKER

 

1. NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP

The 1991-92 season made the New York Rangers a force in the NHL again. A slew of aggressive moves by GM Neil Smith brought superstar Mark Messier to Broadway. ‘The Moose’ led the Rangers to the Presidents’ Trophy and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. The 1992-93 campaign, however, was a massive step backward. After a season marred by injuries, the Rangers missed the playoffs.

BRIAN LEETCH, D: It was a disaster of a year, the year before. I know for me it was. I had a couple injuries, one on the ice, one off the ice (a broken ankle from falling while getting out of a taxi). The team had high expectations going into that and everything just snowballed in the negative direction. So it made for a real long off-season. Not a lot of fun.

NEIL SMITH, GM:  Yeah, we missed the playoffs, but not because our team wasn’t as good. It was because of injuries, a coaching change (Roger Neilson out, Ron Smith in), there’s a lot of things that went wrong. So we missed the playoffs, but it was an aberration. That’s why I hired Mike Keenan as soon as that season ended.

MARK MESSIER, C: No person wins any team championship by themselves. The only way you win is to have everybody feel that it’s their responsibility or priority to do as much as they can for the team. In that regard, my focus never changed from any year, whether it was the first year I played or the last year. I came in with the same focus of trying to galvanize the team to the best of my ability, to make sure everybody felt important and a part of the solution, and that year was no different.

MIKE RICHTER, G: The prior championship was in 1940 and you hear, “OK, so it was 49 years, then 50 years, then 51,” then it ends up being 54 years. Each year it ends up getting a little louder and a little more embarrassing, and you say, “Well, OK, I wasn’t here the last four decades.” But you own it because it’s your organization and your job to change that history as quick as you can.

LEETCH: It wasn’t like you were trying to follow in the Montreal Canadiens footsteps and keep a tradition of being successful, and “Why haven’t you won in four or five years?” It’s a different type of pressure. It’s a great opportunity. That’s how I always looked at it. You’re in a big city and you have the chance to be on a team that does something special.

2. ENTER IRON MIKE

 

Keenan 1994

Mike Keenan

 

Smith and the Rangers set a new tone with some key additions. They brought in Glenn Healy to back up Mike Richter in net, added sniper Steve Larmer and tough guy Nick Kypreos via early-season trade and, most famously, hired ‘Iron’ Mike Keenan as head coach. The taskmaster was back behind the bench a year after taking Chicago to the 1992 final and his reputation preceded him.

SMITH: He was a control guy. Took control of everything 
he possibly could.

MESSIER: He came in with a mission and a vision and really set the course for the team from the first day of training camp by showing us a parade down the Canyon of Heroes.

LEETCH: It was similar to what we had heard, that he was going to be confrontational and we were going to skate. Right away I noticed a real uptick in our practices. I always believed that Mike ran the best practices of any coach I’ve had. They were fast and they weren’t long, but you moved non-stop. If you weren’t executing each drill, you stopped and did it again. He pushed buttons on players, myself included, right away, so it made for an interesting start.

GLENN HEALY, G: He played basically nine forwards and four defense, so if you’re a star player, there’s no lack of ice time.

RICHTER: One of the things that he was very good at was trading on that reputation that was pretty well-earned. So as soon you thought he might lose his marbles and scream, he didn’t. He’d lower his voice, be very quiet, and maybe even give you a day off when you didn’t expect it. Plenty of other times he’d lose his marbles and call people out and get pretty personal when you didn’t expect it. It was good. He kept us on our toes and made our practices significantly harder than maybe we were used to. Maybe there was a level of expectation that was never quite satisfied, which is good. Because what you then have is a team working so hard in practice and in the preparation that the games seemed sometimes easy.

STEVE LARMER, RW: He always saw you continuing to grow and get better rather than getting to a level and flatlining it for a while. He’s always seen more in his players than the players actually saw in themselves.

SMITH: Mike was a high-maintenance person. You were always putting out fires around Mike, whether it was with the trainers, the staff or himself. There was always something going on. And that’s what I think made the players perform so well. They always had their guard up, because they didn’t know what was going to happen next.

RICHTER: There were jaws dropping sometimes at the intensity Keenan brought. But it was great, and it really did prepare us. We wanted to sever ties from the year before. We felt we were a great team that had been progressing really, really well and it was time to take that next step.

 

3. THE NOT-SO-REGULAR SEASON

The Rangers battled to play .500 hockey as they adjusted to Keenan’s system in October. Eventually, they gelled and shot up the standings with a 14-game unbeaten streak. By the all-star break, they were first overall.

HEALY: I was there for one practice, and thought, “Wow. This team could win the Cup.”

LEETCH:  I remember Mike challenging the team and saying this place should be a hard place to play, we shouldn’t lose any games here. Teams should think they will go to New Jersey or Long Island to get points and not Madison Square Garden.

ADAM GRAVES, LW: A lot of times when opponents came in, we were up by a couple goals before the end of the second period, because we came out of the gate and really played. Part of that was a mindset that was developed, and part of it was brought in by Mike, because you knew, if your first couple shifts weren’t what they needed to be, he would move to other players.

Star defenseman Brian Leetch dominated the regular season, though his coach may have thought otherwise.

GRAVES: I don’t even know if there is a handful of games where I didn’t think Brian was one of the top two or three players on the ice. And that was in a 10-year span of being fortunate enough to play with him.

LEETCH: It was my understanding from what Keenan told me, and what he told others, that he was trying to replace me with different players. He wasn’t happy and called me in and let me know that, so it was kind of a strange year. We did so well as a team throughout the regular season, but our coach had different thoughts about where, how, and whether he wanted me on the team. So I was lucky he wasn’t the GM and the coach, or I am pretty sure I would’ve been gone long before. But he moved James Patrick out of there with prodding Neil Smith to make those moves and some other ones. Neil would always would say to me later on, “No, I wasn’t going to trade you, you didn’t need to worry about that.“

One statistic from 1993-94 leaps off the page: Adam Graves’ career-high 52 goals, which topped his previous best by 16.

LARMER: Everything clicked. Graves was a great player and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. Number one.

GRAVES: I don’t think I just surprised myself. I think I surprised a lot of people in the hockey world. (Laughs.) I was at the top of that list of being surprised. I often say this, but I was a product of my environment. I was very fortunate to play with Messier. He made the game so much easier for someone like me. I had a pretty simple game. It was in the corners, it was an aggressive style, getting to the front of the net and being very physical.

 

4. TRADE DEADLINE MADNESS

 

Neil Smith

Neil Smith


In a flurry of activity never before seen and never seen since. Smith turned a first-place team on its head. He shipped young sniper Tony Amonte to Chicago for grinders Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan. He sent Todd Marchant to Edmonton for faceoff specialist Craig MacTavish. And in the biggest shocker, he dealt Mike Gartner to Toronto for Glenn Anderson in a swap of future Hall of Famers.

SMITH: It’s like men and Christmas shopping. When do you go out and buy your Christmas gifts? On Christmas Eve, right? Because you want to make sure when you’re getting something for someone, you get the best deal you can get. You’re waiting to see which place has the biggest sale, and finally, you decide. This is what happened in the NHL.

HEALY: I can recall getting on the bus that morning in Calgary and going to practice and just kind of looking on the bus and thinking to myself, “Wow, they really liked our team, didn’t they?” There were only about 10 of us on the bus. The rest? Gone! You’re traded! It’s over!

SMITH: My thing with people is I want to take away their excuses. If they’re successful, great, but if they’re not, they have to explain why they weren’t when they were given everything they asked for. So, Mike didn’t like Tony Amonte, though I wouldn’t make the trade until Bob Pulford threw in Brian Noonan. That deal was to accommodate Mike’s wishes. Second thing that was Mike’s wishes: he didn’t like Mike Gartner. So, I moved Mike Gartner that day for Glenn Anderson.

HEALY: Mike and Neil took a real gamble in the sense that they saw an opportunity, they saw a team that was on a really good roll, and they maybe gave up some assets that could have helped them down the road – to get the gratification of a Stanley Cup and 54 years of misery being erased.

LEETCH: Gartner and Amonte were big parts of us getting to that point in the season being successful, so my thoughts went to them at first, feeling bad. But I had at least been in the league long enough to know you have no control over that aspect of it.

MESSIER: We were sorry to see guys leave that were part of that year, we were happy to see guys come in, and as we all know, that’s part of the business. We all know what we’re signing up for, and you just move on.

RICHTER: Keenan kept saying, “Don’t be seduced by our success, the playoffs are a different ball game, you need the toughness, you need the depth, you need the experience.” He was very clear about that. Neil had to pull the trigger at some point. The easier thing would have been to do nothing. We lost some great players and great people, but we added great players and people that fit what we needed perhaps a bit better.

SMITH: You owe it to ownership and fans to try as hard as you can and win the Cup. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’m only going to try 90 percent because I want to make sure we’re OK so I have my job.”

 

5. THE SECOND SEASON

The pressure was on as the Blueshirts faced two longtime division rivals, the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals, in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Rangers overcame jitters to sweep the Isles and get past the Caps in five games.

LEETCH: I think we were scared, to be honest. We’d had a hard time over the last couple years winning in Long Island. And in my six or seven years playing in that rivalry, it seems whatever team was below in the standings won that season series and all the games were tough. The crowds were so mixed in each building and the atmosphere was electric. We knew they were a good team and that they were going to test us. There were people picking us to lose in a first-round upset. So to get off to a good start at home, I remember I scored right in that first game early, and I was extremely nervous that game and uptight. I know that helped me out and got us going.

STEPHANE MATTEAU, LW: The game we lost to Washington was probably the only game in the last 15 that we took a team lightly. That was a good lesson for us.

CRAIG MACTAVISH, C: We lost one game against the Capitals, and I had a comment in the paper saying it’s probably unrealistic to think we were going to win 16 games straight. Mike Keenan had a bit of a problem with that. His mentality was, you expect to win every game. “Do you expect to win 16 games straight? Of course I expect to win 16 games straight.” So we had a discussion about that, and I said, “Well, we can’t now.” (laughs)

HEALY: We hardly travelled in the first three rounds. The Islanders was a 45-minute drive, Washington was a 45-minute flight, and the Devils were eight miles. So by the time we got to the final, we beat the Islanders in four, we beat Washington in five, so we had been on an airplane for all of an hour and a half in three rounds.

 

6. DANCE WITH THE DEVILS

Next came one of the most talked about series in history: a conference final war with the New Jersey Devils, who were led by Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Claude Lemieux and rookie goaltender Martin Brodeur.

LEETCH: We had beaten them every game in the regular season, so we had confidence because of that. We knew the different styles, they played that defensive counterattack style, call it the trap, call it whatever you want. But they forced you into playing that whole ice, and when you dumped it in, Marty (Brodeur) would go get it and shoot it right back out and put it on someone’s tape going the other direction. Whereas the first two series, we were able to skate and create opportunities – it was not so much a track meet, but it was definitely more an up and down game and it favored us – we knew we would have to be disciplined and willing to play low-scoring games and work out of the corners. That’s where some of the trades helped us, being able to add Noonan and Matteau, bigger bodies that could also help offensively.

GRAVES: That might go down as one of the great series in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every inch of the ice was contested, for all seven games, and certainly it was a battle of two fantastic goaltenders. Mike Richter, as we all know, was fantastic in the regular season, but he saved his best hockey for when it meant the most, when it was playoffs or World Cup or Olympics. The bigger the game, the better he played.

MATTEAU: It was a physical, physical series. And emotionally, it was very hard.

The Rangers fell behind 3-2 in the series and headed to New Jersey facing elimination. Then came what is now known as “the guarantee.” Messier told reporters: “We’re going to go in there and win Game 6.”

LARMER: Many of us didn’t even know he said that until after the fact. A lot of the times during the playoffs, you don’t tend to read the newspapers that much. You kind of focus on what you’re doing, and what you need to be doing, that day.

MATTEAU: We didn’t have the Facebooks, Twitters back then. It would have been all over our phones. The only clip of papers available was a media guy would come in the morning and put all the clips from the New York papers or New Jersey papers on the table. It was there for you to read it or not, so I never read it.

MESSIER: What transpired in the papers and the guarantee didn’t put any more pressure on me than I had already put on myself to try and find a way to win that game. Once the game started, luckily enough for me, I had a lot of experience playing in those types of situations, and the one thing that experience teaches you is you can’t get too far ahead of yourself. You have to stay in the moment and try and execute a game plan from the start of the game to the end.

The Rangers fell behind 2-0. Then Messier delivered, and then some, scoring a hat trick in the third period to give New York a 4-2 win and force a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

 

HEALY: So you make the guarantee, it makes headlines, and you score three goals in the third period? Seriously? How many of us have had these great plans, and they never come to fruition? Then the greatest leader in sports makes them and seals the deal with a hat trick, on his own, in the third. Never discount what ‘Mess’ says, that’s one thing I’ve learned.

GRAVES: It was something only Mark could do, and something I had seen maybe once before. That was back in 1990, in Game 4, in Chicago, and it was Mess again that came up with an absolutely huge game when the team needed it. That just speaks to his leadership. He can lead any way he wanted to, whether it was on the ice or in the dressing room, emotionally, physically, playing the game.

The Rangers led by a goal in the dying moments of Game 7, but the Devils wouldn’t quit.

LEETCH: I was out there on the ice and Claude Lemieux, he’s on me the whole series. He’s the right winger and my whole career, every shift it seemed like I was out there against him. And you know the pain in the neck he is to play against. He was coming in front of the net and I’m like, “You can’t let this guy in.” I thought he would jab me in the back of the skates or something and I thought, “You cannot let Claude Lemieux tie this up.” So I favored him a little to the front post. The puck went bouncing right by us both and I remember turning and swinging at it cause I saw there were another couple guys on the other side. It bounced over my stick.

MATTEAU: I was on the bench, saying “I’m going to the Stanley Cup final, that’s going to be great.” All of a sudden, (Valeri) Zelepukin scores with seven or eight seconds to go. The whole crowd, except the Devils fans in the stands, the whole Madison Square Garden was shut down for a few minutes.

The epic series went to overtime, then a second overtime period. It was time for Matteau, who already had a sudden death winner in the series, to play hero again.

MATTEAU: Messier, Kevin Lowe, Anderson, the same leadership guys all stood up one by one. They all said “Let’s go, let’s score another goal, let’s score the next goal so we’re going to the Stanley Cup final.”

HEALY: When I was watching Brodeur, I felt fear. Because he could win the series by himself, and he nearly did. I look at Game 7, the first overtime, I think we outshot them 16 to, maybe, 5? And it was like, “We might not score on this guy.”

MATTEAU: I was fresh, I jumped on the ice, saw a loose puck going into the corner. I had a very good jump. I tried to stuff it on the short side on Marty Brodeur, but Niedermayer hooked me, and I went behind the net and he hooked me again. So I kind of stuffed it to the post or put the puck toward the net. While I did that, I saw the puck going in very, very, very slowly. To me, the whole crowd shut down for about a split second, then the crowd went crazy, and we all went crazy at the same time.”

MESSIER: When Matteau scored the goal to win the series, I immediately switched into, “What’s next?” For us, and for myself, personally, I just fell back onto the fact I had been in those situations before. Obviously, it was an amazing feeling to get by the Devils in the way we did, but you don’t sit there and rest on your laurels too long. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s Game 7, you’re playing two days later, so the celebration was short and quick.

 

7. THE FINAL FRONTIER

In the final, the Rangers drew a tough Vancouver Canucks team, led by young superstar Pavel Bure, captain Trevor Linden and goalie Kirk McLean, who was playing the best hockey of his career. He singlehandedly stole Game 1 with a 52-save performance. But New York roared back to win Game 2 at home and the next two contests in Vancouver.

LEETCH: McLean was hot and Bure was leading the way and they were a very confident team that could play a bunch of different styles. They had size with some big guys who could play a tough game. But we knew there would be more open ice than there was in the New Jersey series and we thought that we could manufacture chances.

MACTAVISH: I always tell fans in Vancouver, it could’ve and should’ve been a sweep. That’s not a popular comment in the West, but McLean played great in Game 1.

LEETCH: Our first game was excellent. We were excited, we played well, we bombarded McLean there and lost in overtime. So it was important for us to bounce back in Game 2. We were able to do that and at least get ourselves back on balance before heading out to Vancouver. We got some brakes, to be honest in those next two games, We played well, but had some goals go in that hadn’t been going in for the first three rounds or even in our games earlier. A couple crazy deflections found their way in at key times when we needed it.

The Blueshirts were on the verge of triumph. But the allure of the Stanley Cup put the pressure on and they lost focus. The Canucks spoiled the party with a 6-3 win in Game 5.

MATTEAU: All my family, my parents, sister were coming to the game, so my focus was not on the game as much. I was worrying about them driving from Noranda, Que., to New York. But when we got to the game, I had no legs. I think a lot of players felt that way and we lost.

MACTAVISH: We were a much tighter team than them in Game 5, despite the fact if they lost it was over. There was more pressure on us, so you play a game not to lose, instead of being aggressive and playing to win.

The Canucks won Game 6 at home, too, forcing a do-or-die Game 7 in Manhattan.

LEETCH: They played their best in Game 6, but you would see things that talked about how it’s hard to beat a team three games in a row in the playoffs, especially two out of three in their building. So we knew there was a little doubt in their heads, about whether they could go out and actually get it done on the road.

MATTEAU: We have to live in the moment, and the moment is Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. It doesn’t get any better. If you aren’t ready for those games, you don’t belong in that sport. But the 54-year drought was far behind our thoughts. With all due respect to the old Rangers, it was not our fault. It was our game and our series to win.

HEALY: That first period, I never heard a word of the national anthem. It was so loud. That crowd gave us a 2-0 lead right out of the chute. You had three generations of Ranger fans that had not seen a championship. So you have dad wearing an Eddie Giacomin jersey, the son’s wearing a Ron Duguay jersey, and the kid wearing a Richter jersey.

Linden scored twice for the Canucks, but a Messier goal had the Rangers up 3-2 late in the third period. Rookie Nathan LaFayette was inches from tying the game when he beat Richter from the slot and hit the post with mere minutes remaining. The final seconds of the game ticked off – but a questionable icing call set up the Canucks in the Rangers zone with a single breath to go on the clock.

LEETCH: I thought there was no way it was icing, it was barely rolling down the ice. I turned and gave Mike Richter a hug and I think Esa Tikkanen was over there, but it was not the response you would expect from winning the Stanley Cup. Mike and I start looking around, and we can hear the crowd murmuring and booing and talking, and they had called another icing. I remember having to pick up my stick and I’m slightly embarrassed, and I’m like, “Well how much time can be left?”

MESSIER: Everybody remembers that moment because of what happened in the Devils series when they scored with a couple seconds to go.

SMITH: My wife is crying, scared. Everyone’s worried because there is this faceoff in our end. “Oh! Rangers could blow it! We could maybe not win it!” So I keep myself calm, I kept saying, “They’ll never score in this situation.” And of course they won’t be able to score, because I knew Messier and MacTavish would just dive on the puck.


8. THE CURSE IS BROKEN

The horn sounded and the curse was erased. The City that Never Sleeps erupted in jubilation. The Rangers had won the Stanley Cup.

HEALY: I looked behind me and it’s just cops encircling the entire arena. I thought to myself, “Wow. This is pretty big.” And yet everyone had champagne. I have no idea how they got it in! Only in New York can you get champagne into a building.

MATTEAU: It’s like you’re a kid, because you win the Stanley Cup years ago in your backyard, in your living room playing mini-hockey, but it was real as an adult. You want to thank a lot of people that brought you there. There’s a lot of emotion, the ups and downs. The junior leagues, the struggling. Everything goes through your mind, but I have to share with my family. My family was in the stands, my mom and dad were there, my sister, so there’s a lot that goes through your mind. It was just an incredible feeling.

RICHTER: You felt like, “Wow, I can pay these people back for their support.” It was a really good feeling to share that. It was a pretty damn cool moment when Mess got the Cup and brought it over to the fans and they were hopping and touching it.

MESSIER: It was an amazing feeling to see generations of fans that finally got to see the Stanley Cup in New York and on Madison Square Garden ice. It was a lifelong dream for many fans, a lifelong dream for many people in the organization, and a lot of the players as well. I don’t think words can describe what happened and the feeling that transpired because of that win, many years later. To this day, we’re all very appreciative of the efforts from all the people – not only the players, but the organization, all the way through – that made that championship possible.

MATTEAU: It was a big rock ‘n’ roll event. People were singing, they put a lot of good songs on. We’re dancing on the ice with the Cup. It was just a great atmosphere.

SMITH: That’s not the feeling for every Cup winner. That’s the feeling when you haven’t won it for 54 years in the biggest city in the world with a fan base that doesn’t think they’ll ever see it. The only place I can tell you that it would be the same is if you won it in Toronto.

 

9. THE CURTAIN CLOSES

As unforgettable as 1993-94 was, the championship team dissolved stunningly. Keenan and Smith couldn’t work out their differences and Keenan left the Rangers after just one season. Anderson, Tikkanen and Doug Lidster followed him to his new team, St. Louis. A lockout delayed the next season by several months.

RICHTER: After Mike left, so much of the feel of the locker room was different. We lost great people, we got other great people in, but it was a big turnover for a team that was that tight. That was a hard one going into the following year. Then, of course, the lockout, all of those things, really it put a pretty severe line between that year, which was magical, and the next one.

SMITH: Keenan’s departure was him wanting to have his own team and wanting to have his own control over everything. I guess he saw he wasn’t going to be able to have the Rangers completely in his control because I was there. And while he was at the top of his game – Presidents’ Trophy, heading for the Stanley Cup – his stock was at its highest and he could go out and really get a huge job.

RICHTER: You get into that place and you get into a rhythm, especially in a seven-game series, you know, you play a game, you have a day off, you practice, you prepare, you go watch a movie, hang out with the guys, have a great meal, you get up, you practice, you play. That journey was really, really enjoyable. It was a rhythm where nothing else mattered in the world, and there was no place you’d rather be than right in that locker room with the guys, preparing, playing, recovering, and hitting the repeat button. That was your family, as it was all across the year. We were a really tight team. You just couldn’t wait to get to the locker room in the morning and hang out and laugh. It’s still like that when we get together.

GRAVES: It was as close a team as I’ve ever played on.

This is an extended version of a feature that originally appeared in the May 5 of The Hockey News magazine. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.