|11 DAYS OF MARK MESSIER|
As the Rangers prepare to honor Mark Messier by retiring his No. 11 jersey before the Jan. 12 game against Edmonton at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and MSG Network will spend the next 11 days looking back at the career of one of hockey's true legends. To make these "11 Days of Messier " even more special, we asked The Captain for a list of his 11 greatest NHL moments. Each day between now and the Jan. 12 event, newyorkrangers.com will spotlight one of these great memories.
Today, we look at the last and greatest of Messier's 11 memories – the June 14, 1994, victory over Vancouver in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. On that night, Messier and his teammates realized a dream for all of New York, breaking "The Curse" that had gripped Madison Square Garden for 54 years.
During that entire period of 19,786 days, they never saw the Rangers win a Stanley Cup championship.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about that dryspell was the fact that between 1940 and 1994, the New York area was all but drowning in title teams from other team sports. Four different New York baseball teams, including the Yankees (14 times), the Mets (twice), and the old Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, had all won the World Series during that stretch. Both New York football teams had won the Super Bowl, and in basketball, the Knicks had won a pair of NBA titles in the 1970s.
In the 54 years between Rangers Stanley Cup championships, the total number of championships won by New York City teams in the three other major professional sports was an impressive 24. Success was so rampant that even teams in defunct leagues -- most notably the ABA's New York Nets -- had brought championship trophies to the Big Apple between 1940 and 1994.
Hockey, however, was another story for New Yorkers unwilling to do the unthinkable and embrace an expansion team from the suburbs of Long Island. Perhaps the greatest testimony to the loyalty of the fans after 1940 was that the vast majority of them did not jump ship for an Islander bandwagon that roared through the New York area in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
These fans were still true blue and wanted to see their own team reign over the sport of hockey, but they were up against "The Curse" – a jinx of more than 50 years that had kept the Rangers from winning the NHL's ultimate prize. This was even true in a six-team league, which the NHL had been until 1967. The Curse had also been strong enough to spell defeat for the Rangers in three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals between 1950 and 1979. No NHL team had ever gone as long without the Cup as the Rangers.
Into this mixture of hockey hope and despair stepped 30-year-old Mark Messier in 1991. He was coming off a glorious 12-year run that had seen him win five Cup championships in Edmonton, and the idea of a team unable to win was completely foreign to him.
Immediately greeted as the team's savior, Messier was named the Rangers' captain prior to the 1991-92 home opener, and he received a tremendous ovation that would change his life.
"I never expected to be greeted with that kind of ovation," he would later recall. "I remember saying to myself as the crowd roared 'I will die trying to bring the Stanley Cup to the fans of New York.'"
It was a perfect fit, and it seemed only a matter of time before the undisputed greatest leader in hockey would deliver the Rangers to complete and total victory. If he couldn't do it, no NHL player could. Messier was, quite literally, New York's last hope.
In his first year on Broadway, Messier turned the organization around, leading the Blueshirts to the regular-season championship before exiting in the second round of the playoffs. Then, just when it seemed like the Cup was inevitable, The Curse reared its ugly head, and the Rangers suffered a painful setback in missing the 1993 playoffs.
At the beginning of the 1993-94 season, the Rangers coaching staff compiled a special video of past New York championship teams celebrating success in the city's signature form of praise – the ticker-tape parade. They showed this tape to the players, emphasizing that making the playoffs in 1994 was not going to be enough. This Rangers team could only be successful if it ended the season in the "Canyon of Heroes."
That video set the tone for a remarkable year in which the Rangers won the NHL's regular-season crown with a franchise-record 52 victories. In uncharacteristic fashion, they went into the Stanley Cup playoffs as heavy favorites rather than underdogs. It seemed that even The Curse would not be able to derail this.
After breezing through two playoff rounds, the Rangers hit a speed bump against New Jersey but came back with dramatic wins in Game 6 and 7 to reach the Stanley Cup Finals against Vancouver. The Finals, played out over an unforgettable two-week period, opened that year on May 31 at Madison Square Garden.
A 3-2 overtime loss in Game 1, sparked by 52 saves from Vancouver goalie Kirk McLean, didn't rattle the Blueshirts at all. They came back to win the next three games by scores of 3-1, 5-1 and 4-2. With the series heading back to Madison Square Garden, the home team did not appear in any danger of becoming the first group in 52 years to blow a 3-1 series lead in the Finals.
But on June 9, The Curse reared its ugly head. After battling back from a 3-2 deficit to tie the game on Messier's goal at 9:02 of the third period, the Rangers allowed three unanswered goals, pushing the series back to Vancouver for a sixth game.
Catastrophe hit again on June 11 in Vancouver, as the Canucks roared out to a 2-0 lead and never looked back for a 4-1 win. The series was suddenly tied 3-3, with Game 7 scheduled three nights later at the Garden.
During the Rangers' June 13 practice, head coach Mike Keenan and his assistants sat the players down to watch the ticker-tape video one more time. To a man, everyone in the room still believed that the Rangers were the better team and would win the Cup with the home-ice advantage they worked so hard to earn during the regular season. Nobody could come into their house and rain on their parade.
Prior to Game 7, Messier and Keenan had a conversation about the magnitude of a possible Rangers victory and what it would mean to the "Garden Faithful" who stuck by the team for so many years.
"They talk about ghosts and dragons," Messier later told reporters. "I said to Mike 'You can't be afraid to slay the dragon.' We're going to celebrate this like we've never celebrated anything in our lives."
Feeding off Messier's confidence, the Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead on playoff MVP Brian Leetch's goal (assisted by Messier and Sergei Zubov) at 11:02 and Adam Graves' power-play marker from Zubov and Alexei Kovalev at 14:45. They remained in control until early in the second period, when Canucks captain Trevor Linden tallied shorthanded at 5:21 to make it 2-1.
More than 34 minutes remained in the game when Linden scored, and the idea of clinging to a one-goal lead for that long was unsettling at best. But in typical Messier fashion, the Rangers' captain stepped up and delivered. With Vancouver's Dave Babych off for tripping, Messier notched a power play goal at 13:29 to make it 3-1. That goal would stand up as the Cup-winner, and Vancouver managed t score only one more time in the final period.
The waiting was, indeed, over. The dream had become a reality. At the postgame award presentation, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman instructed Messier to "come get the Stanley Cup" as the crowd experienced what can only be described as cathasis. Even President Bill Clinton called in with congratulations.
The events of June 14, 1994, nded The Curse forever, and it wasn't just New Yorkers who took an interest in that historic event. To date, Game 7 on ESPN remains the most-watched television broadcast of an NHL game in the United States, drawing a 5.2 ratings share that even Game 7 of the 2003 Finals on ABC could not reach.
Fittingly, Messier scored the Rangers' final goal of their greatest playoff run. He finished the Finals with seven points on two goals and five assists and had at least one point in every game except the opener. When the Game 7 ended, and the famous "Now I Can Die in Peace" sign appeared in the crowd, Messier jumped for joy in a way that reflected both his own passion for hockey and the emotions of an entire city.
As the Rangers celebrated on the ice and in the dressing room, the magnitude of what they had accomplished, largely thanks to Messier's leadership,began to dawn on them.
"I think the people it affects are the fans," said veteran Rangers defenseman Jay Wells, who became a first-time NHL champion at age 35. "They can finally say we won the Cup. There was a lot of pressure on us to win it, but we had nothing to do with that curse. It's nice to win, but for the fans, I'm so glad The Curse is gone."