The story should be narrated by someone who looks like Humphrey Bogart, someone with a basset-hound touch of sadness to his features. He should be hunched over a bar, maybe with some midafternoon sunlight coming through a cloudy window. A cigarette should be burning by itself on the lip of a cluttered ashtray. A half-filled glass of amber liquid should be nearby. An instrumental certainly should be playing on the jukebox, a saxophone stretching to the high notes, a sad song.
"Yeah, I'm a Ranger fan...."
The voice should be low, the words flattened almost to a monotone.
"Yeah, I've been one all my life...."
June 5, 1994
There is a certain beginning to this story, 1940, the last time the New York Rangers won hockey's Stanley Cup, and there's a possible end now, 54 years later, as the Rangers skate through the NHL finals against the underdog Vancouver Canucks. But there should be no joy. The Cup? How could the Rangers win the Cup? The threat of failure overrides any possibility of joy. Did you see the Eastern Conference finals, see the things that could happen? Seven games against the New Jersey Devils. Three double overtimes. The memory of Stephane Matteau's goal to give the Rangers a 2-1 win in the final game might be wonderful, but what about the memory of Valeri Zelepukin's goal with 7.7 seconds left to tie the game for Jersey? See what can happen? The Cup? Incomprehensible.
"Yeah, the Rangers will win the Cup. Yeah, when cows learn how to do the bossa nova....
THE CURSE OF THE NEW YORK RANGERS! TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION! AN EPIC MELODRAMA! FIFTY-FOUR YEARS OF HEARTBREAK! FIFTY-FOUR YEARS OF WEIRDNESS! FIFTY-FOUR YEARS! A COMEDY! A TRAGEDY! A TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL AND THE ALL-TOO-NATURAL, THE TALE OF A TEAM TOUCHED BY THE GODS...WELL, NOT SO MUCH TOUCHED AS CROSSCHECKED INTO THE BOARDS! FIFTY-FOUR YEARS!
A picture. Black and white. Six men in tuxedos stand in a circle around the famous Cup. The year is 1941. One of the men, General John Reed Kilpatrick, is sticking a piece of paper into the Cup, and the paper is burning. Burning? It is the mortgage for Madison Square Garden, the old one that was on Eighth Avenue. The General is one of the officers of the corporation. The $3 million mortgage has been paid off, at last, and this is the celebration. Celebration? The Cup is defamed, a holy object used as an incinerator, treated with indignity by business heathens who do not know the price that will be paid for their actions. Was that the start?
Another picture. A head shot of a man named Red Dutton. He became the manager of the New York Americans in 1936, but this part of the story began much earlier. In 1925 the Americans were the first NHL team in New York. The Garden management, the Americans' landlord, looked upon them with skepticism until the Americans immediately began to make money. One year later the Garden formed its own team, the Rangers, so it could make all the money instead of a small share of the Americans' profits. A war ensued between the teams, and Dutton for a while became the Americans' financial savior. Alas, the Americans went out of business after World War II, and Dutton supposedly declared in anger that "the Rangers never will win the Cup again in my lifetime." Was that the start? Did he really place a curse that would last until this day?
"A lot of that was newspaper stuff," he declared mysteriously a few years before his death in 1987, "but newspapers can be right sometimes."
An interview. John Halligan, who now is the NHL's director of special projects, was the Ranger public-relations director from 1963 to '83 and from '86 to '90. He watched The Curse grow in front of his eyes. An idea became form and substance. No one in the present New York front office saw as much as he did because, as one worker says, "are you kidding? No one's been around that long. Life here is measured in dog years." Turnover has been part of The Curse.
"The first time people started talking about The Curse was in the early '70s," Halligan says. "That's because for a long time before that, the Rangers were really bad. There were so many things that worked against them, especially in the old Garden. They had to practice in this little rink there on the fifth floor called Iceland. It was really no bigger than a puddle, maybe 120 feet long, no more than 60 feet wide. One end was egg shaped, and the boards were metal. How could you really practice there?
"Then there was the circus. That was a big one. The circus would come to town the same time as the playoffs. The Rangers would have to play 'home' games on the road because the ice had been taken up when the circus was in the Garden. This didn't change until the late '60s, when some new kind of floor was invented so the ice could remain.
"There always was something," Halligan continues. "Even in the new Garden, which opened in 1968. There was a plan to have a practice rink, full-sized, as part of the building. Then the Garden management noticed the bowling boom. Bowling was a cash cow. The practice rink was scrapped, and 48 lanes took its place.
"The year we should have won was 1979. We went to Montreal for the finals. Fred Shero was the coach. We won the first game, and I remember standing next to Phil Esposito, who was begging, pleading with Fred to take the team to some hideaway in the Laurentian Mountains to prepare for the second game. Fred didn't want that. He wanted to go out in Montreal, to have a good time, to let people congratulate him. We stayed in Montreal. Fred went out. The players went out. We went up 2-0 early in the second game, but Esposito's quote in the newspapers, I think, was 'After that we never won another face-off for the rest of the series.' Everyone was whipped."
The things that happened. A litany of strangeness. A compendium of circumstance. A time line of failure, of hockey touched by outside influences. A medical-school primer. A partial list:
•The 1940 Cup winners certainly had the right to think that success would be part of their future after their grand triumph in six games over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hadn't the Rangers won the Cup three times in their first 14 years of existence? Weren't such stars as Clint Smith and Phil Watson and the Colville and Patrick brothers already in place? But World War II had already begun, and half the team soon went off to fight.
•The closest New York has come to winning the Cup since then was in 1950. It had barely made the playoffs but dispatched the Canadiens in five games and faced the Detroit Red Wings in the finals.
Ah, but now the circus arrived at the Garden. The first two Ranger "home" games were played in Toronto. Still, they did well, and after five games they led the series three games to two. A curious NHL rule, however, decreed that no deciding game could be played on neutral ice. The sixth game, played in Detroit, was a 5-4 Ranger loss. The seventh and final game, also played in Detroit, turned out to be a 4-3 loss in double overtime when Pete Babando's 35-foot wrist shot went past New York goalie Chuck Rayner. Would the Rangers have won a deciding game at home? Wouldn't home ice have been worth a goal in either of the two losses?
•The NHL of the 1950s and '60s had a mechanism called territorial rights, whereby teams had the rights to all players within a 50-mile radius of their city. The Canadiens were entitled to hockey players from French-speaking Quebec. The Maple Leafs were entitled to players from Ontario. The Rangers were entitled to players from...New York? Was that any way to compete? The Rangers sank to the bottom of the six-team league. In fact, from 1950 to '70 they qualified for the playoffs only eight times and never won more than two games in a series, never got past the first round.
•In 1972 New York reached the finals at last, against the Boston Bruins. Maybe the Rangers didn't have a chance because this was Bobby Orr's time, but it also didn't help that New York's leading scorer, Jean Ratelle, broke his ankle on March 1 on the way to the playoffs. Boston won the series in six games.
•In 1974 New York went to a seventh game in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers. Early in the game, Flyer bad guy Dave Schultz attacked Ranger defenseman Dale Rolfe. No one came to help as Rolfe was pummeled. New York lost 4-3. The Flyers became the Broad Street Bullies and won the Cup that year and the next. The Rangers became, well...the same Rangers.
•The 1979 loss to Montreal was New York's last trip to the finals before this year. The Rangers had been helped in their '79 run by Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, Swedish recruits, the latest in a series of possible saviors, along with Shero, but no saviors ever worked. New York would try Herb Brooks, the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic coach, in the '80s, and it would try Esposito behind the bench and in the front office, and it would deal for an assortment of faded-glory names, even luring Guy Lafleur out of retirement. Nothing worked.
•Before this year the last big run came in 1992. Mark Messier was the savior, as he and other former Edmonton Oilers became the latest acquired stars. The Rangers were on their way to the best record in the league and the most wins in club history. And then the NHL players went on strike a week before the playoffs were scheduled to start. Everyone sat for 10 days. Then the strike ended, and New York was bounced in six games by the Pittsburgh Penguins. And then late last season star Brian Leetch broke his ankle stepping off a curb, and the Rangers failed to make the playoffs, and then coach Mike Keenan was brought in as the savior. And then, and then....
An interview. Clare Prevot is a former president of the Ranger fan club. She first bought season tickets in 1953, when she would go to the games at the old Garden with a string of cowbells around her neck. She met her husband, John, at a game, and when they were married in 1960, they spent their honeymoon going to see New York play in Chicago and Montreal. Two of their sons have married women they met at Ranger games.
"One year it is a left wing we need to win the...we don't even mention the words for it in our house," she says. "We get a left wing, and then it is a defenseman we need. Then it is a center. Nothing seems to work. The one thing I've learned is not to expect anything. I thought we were going to win it in 1979, but what are you going to do?
"Two years ago my husband and I made plans to go to Toronto for a game near the end of the season. That was the year of the strike. The game was canceled. We had nonrefundable plane tickets, though, so we went anyway. We figured we could at least go to the Hockey Hall of Fame and see the...what we won't mention. You know what happened? We went. It was out on loan. All this time, and we still haven't seen it."
The music from the jukebox should continue. The cigarette—maybe another cigarette—should burn. Behind the bar, a television with a bad vertical-hold control should show scrolling hockey images, Messier scoring and Adam Graves bouncing Canucks around the boards and Mike Richter making kick saves, sending the puck into the seats. Or maybe it should show Ranger general manager Neil Smith talking about The Curse and how it will be ended this time. Or maybe it should show Keenan, hair slicked against his head, aiming a cobalt stare at a referee. Or maybe it should show....
"Yeah?" the monotone voice should ask.
Cows dancing the bossa nova?
Maybe. Then, again, maybe not.