The Elusive Charm of the Greatest Rangers
Written by Pac Pobric • Illustrated by Keenan Wells
That’s how long it’s been since the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup. And in that quarter-century, the revered players of yore who brought the chalice back to New York for the first time since 1940—Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, and Adam Graves, among others—have each become a little greyer, a little more wizened. And yet they were still perfectly recognizable Friday night on the ice at Madison Square Garden, where alumni from the 1993–94 roster gathered in a pre-game ceremony to mark the anniversary of their great victory.
By any account, it was a happy occasion, made bittersweet only by the absence of Alexander Karpovtsev, the former Rangers forward who was killed in a 2011 plane crash in Russia; the son of former general manager Neil Smith, Viktor, who died in September; and John Amirante, the longtime Garden national anthem singer who died last April, aged 83. Still there were happy faces everywhere, and even Mike Keenan, the former head coach who was always the loudest, angriest man in the room, wore an expression of unabashed joy.
As each former player and coach ambled down the red carpet in the pregame ceremony, handing out high-fives to a lucky group of fans invited down for the experience, he was showered from above by an adoring crowd of 18,000 admirers. Here he comes, Jeff Beukeboom, the celebrated defenseman and part-time enforcer, seemingly as large as ever, but wearing a smile no opponent ever saw on the ice. And here’s Esa Tikkanen, another of the fiercest players ever to wear a Blueshirt, his face rounded with age and his demeanor mellowed by time. Now look at Eddie Olczyk parading down the ice, arms in the air, as charismatic as ever, full of his old boyish charm, despite a cancer scare in 2017.
By the time captain Mark Messier—the Messiah—made his appearance, the arena was enraptured, and as he strode over to his spot alongside his former teammates, the crowd erupted at the chance to honor him and this cherished team: Let’s go Rangers! Let’s go Rangers! Messier didn’t try to hide his tears.
The passage of time is like a prism, amplifying certain visions and diminishing others. It warps our histories, for better or for worse, and after long periods of failure or perceived failure, it layers a sweet, lovely haze across memories of good days gone by. With each passing year and failed Stanley Cup run, every playoff series lost and key player traded away as an investment in the future at the expense of the present, the stature of a victorious past grows just a bit more. The 1993–94 New York Rangers are a myth. What did they have that we still can’t recapture?
For 25 years, we’ve been looking for evidence in those perfectly framed photographs and video clips, of Rangers goaltender Mike Richter denying Pavel Bure on that crucial penalty shot in game four of the Final; of captain Mark Messier collecting a hat trick in game 6 of the series against the Devils after his guarantee that we will win tonight; of Stephane Matteau’s wrap-around series winner two nights later. Every image has just the right amount of grain to signal that this was the golden age.
Each subsequent day, as our technology has become sharper and our visual culture has become more refined, those pictures and films from a quarter-century ago have acquired another thin layer of authenticity. Those old, baggy hockey uniforms; the bucket-like helmets that players used to wear, most of them without visors, because who needed them; the lovable but lumpy Rangers championship hat, inexplicably ill-designed in black, white, and orange—they all swirl together into a misty, fantastical dream. Except it is no fantasy, because we have the proof. It happened, and it happened here.
More successful teams, with repeated Stanley Cup wins in recent years, have less use for nostalgia. Their champion players—Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Patrick Kane in Chicago, Niklas Kronwall in Detroit—are still active, and may win again. Their general managers have major victories at the tops of their CVs, and their names, along with those of their players and staff, are etched into the freshest rings of the Stanley Cup. In some cities, NHL championship parades are a regular occurrence. But not in New York.
There have been other great teams in Rangers history. During the Emile Francis era (1964–76), New York earned nine consecutive playoff berths and trip to the 1972 Stanley Cup Final. Forward Rod Gilbert and goaltender Eddie Giacomin played in those years, and though neither ever won the top prize, both were elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and had their numbers retired by the Rangers. In the 1950s, two other future Hall-of-Famers, Andy Bathgate and Gump Worsley, also made their marks in New York, but only on unsuccessful teams, and neither won a Stanley Cup until he left for greener pastures.
We still honor these players. But memories of their many accomplishments are hazier, clouded over by the larger-scale failures of those years. We want the Cup! On that demand, the 1993–94 team delivered.
So it’s easy to gloss over the unhappy days of that season, as if the march to victory was inexorable. It wasn’t. There was real uncertainty in New York when Tony Amonte, a perennial 30-goal scorer, was traded to Chicago for two bruising grinders in what looked like a ridiculous transaction. Things did not look well when Mike Keenan abruptly quit coaching in the middle of a game just because he was in a bad mood. And there was tremendous discomfort when management rows spilled out into the New York media, threatening to rupture an already pressurized atmosphere. For all the heightened expectations of that season, there was a nagging suspicion that this was not the year, for which there was regular evidence. Twenty-five years ago yesterday, the Rangers vented their frustrations by racking up 33 total penalty minutes in a demoralizing 4–3 loss to the Canadiens.
Last Friday night at the Garden, that loss in Montreal, which so few remember, was likely on one one’s mind. In hindsight, through the prism of the past, it looks like a mere blip, obscured by the glow that surrounds the 1994 team. What did they have that we still can’t recapture? We know it’s the wrong question to ask, and that the past will never return in perfect romantic form. The golden age is a retrospective invention; it cannot be recaptured. But how lovely, every once in a while, to lavish in fond memories of days gone by...