WE INTERRUPT THIS NEW YORK RANGER Stanley Cup celebration to bring
you a call from the President of the United States.
''Mr. President,'' said Brian Leetch, winner of the Conn Smythe
Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
''Congratulations, man,'' Bill Clinton said. ''I've been sitting
here alone in the White House watching this, cheering for you, biting
my fingernails, screaming and yelling.''
They chatted for a minute before Clinton hung up.
''Was that Dana Carvey?'' Leetch asked.
Who knew? The Rangers hadn't won the Stanley Cup in 54 years, had
never even had a chance to win it at home until this series, and now
New York and a sport that until recently seemed like the poor cousin
in America were getting the full Bubba treatment. Leetch had every
right to be incredulous.
The Curse is now dead. Maybe in the year 2048 some wiseacre NHL
fans will chant ''1994'' in derision, but the ''1994'' rocking the
Garden Tuesday night was as much an ablution as the Moet & Chandon
baths the Rangers took in their dressing room. New York had survived
a tense Game 7, beating the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 behind goals by
Leetch, Adam Graves and Mark Messier and spectacular goaltending by
By winning, the Rangers overcame their own sorry tradition and the
swirling rumors about coach Mike Keenan's imminent departure.
Keenan-to-Detroit Red Wings stories dominated the end of the series
the way that not even Leetch, with five goals against the Canucks,
could. As in the old days, the circus had come to the Garden during
the Stanley Cup finals.
Keenan firmly denied the rumors on the eve of Game 7, five days
after the story broke. Meanwhile, New York general manager Neil Smith
had little to say. There is no telling what might happen next in the
uneasy relationship between Smith and Keenan, but as Messier passed
around the Cup, there seemed to be plenty of glory to go around.
This was the celebration that was supposed to have happened after
Game 5 in New York. Paradise Delayed. The assembling of 50 extra
police officers inside and an additional 300 outside Madison Square
Garden five days earlier had been a mere dress rehearsal, albeit
probably at time and a half.
There had been no doubt that TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT, as the New York
Post headline screamed the day of Game 5. (The last Ranger Stanley
Cup was eight years old when Truman beat Dewey.) This was the first
time in Ranger history that they were in a position to win the
Stanley Cup on home ice, and the scalpers were charging such
exorbitant prices (one report put it at $2,000 a seat), you would
have thought that Barbra Streisand were singing the national anthems.
The Rangers themselves were getting ready to party. In fact, they
were so busy filling out their post-Cup victory schedule, they could
barely squeeze in 60 minutes against the Canucks. Thursday: team
party. Friday: guest shot for 20 on David Letterman's show. Saturday:
cookout with Mayor Rudy Giuliani at Gracie Mansion.
The Rangers were done in during Game 5 by two parts Pavel Bure and
Geoff Courtnall, one part hubris. Keenan said media whooping before
the game had seduced his players, although the loss was better
explained by the four goals that Bure and Courtnall split. Midway
through the first period linesman Randy Mitton blew an offsides call,
thereby incorrectly negating an apparent Esa Tikkanen goal that would
have given the Rangers a 1-0 lead. Not only did New York lose the
goal, but it also lost defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, who was ejected for
having been the instigating pugilist during a difference of opinion
that arose during that play.
Curse-ologists pointed to the phantom offsides as the defining
moment in the 6-3 defeat, but New York really was a victim of its own
pride. After scoring three goals in a 5:35 stretch of helter-skelter
hockey to tie the game in the third period, the Rangers inexplicably
continued to gamble. Their assault yielded a spate of three-on-twos
going the other way, which resulted in three more Vancouver goals.
As the New York players filed off the Garden ice, they were hailed
by chants of ''Let's Go, Ran-juhs!'' Apparently sound doesn't carry
3,085 miles. Two nights later in Vancouver in Game 6, the Canucks
dominated New York 4-1. Suddenly the vaunted Ranger experience --
nine players are 30 years or older -- looked like nothing more than
old age. If the Rangers were going to drink from the Stanley Cup, it
seemed that commissioner Gary Bettman would have to fill it with
How could this have happened? New York had grabbed a 3-1 series
lead before the wheels began looking like those on an old Packard.
Indeed, the Rangers had played well enough to have won the Cup in
four straight. If Leetch's overtime drive in Game 1 hadn't dinged the
crossbar seconds before the Canucks came back up ice to score the
winner in a 3-2 victory, not even goalie Kirk McLean's 52 stops would
have saved Vancouver.
Unlike the cagey New Jersey Devils, who tried to contain New
York's explosiveness with speed bumps in the neutral zone, the
Canucks were content to play the Rangers straight up -- speed on
speed, size versus size, captain Mark Messier versus captain Trevor
Linden, up-and-down hockey. In Game 2 the matchup certainly did look
like No. 1 (New York) in the regular season versus No. 14 (Vancouver)
as the Rangers outshot the Canucks 40-29 and won 3-1.
Bure, with just one assist, had been quiet up to that point. But
in the first period of Game 3, at the Pacific Coliseum, Bure had a
career. He beat Richter on a breakaway 63 seconds into the match and
later drew two penalties -- the Russian Rocket in full orbit. Alas
for Vancouver, Bure was not the Russian Rocket Scientist: With 1:39
left in the opening period he high-sticked the Rangers' utility
defenseman, Jay Wells, in the face, breaking his nose and cutting him
severely enough that he needed four stitches above his left eye.
Referee Andy vanHellemond gave Bure five-minute major and
game-misconduct penalties. New York's Glenn Anderson scored 58
seconds later, and the Canucks, without their best player, seemed to
lose heart. When the 16,150 in the Coliseum waved their trademark
white towels, it looked suspiciously like surrender.
Leetch scored twice in Game 3, but his Game 4 performance will
endure longer than the Ranger jinx. For a 10-minute stretch in the
second period, he and Bure lost themselves in the moment. Six-on-six
turned into one-on-one each time they touched the puck. These were
men playing for the Stanley Cup, but they could have been kids on a
frozen pond in Connecticut -- or Moscow. They went end-to-end, first
one, then the other, as their teammates melted into the background.
Bure had the chance to put the game away with a penalty shot in
the second period and the Canucks leading 2-1. But Richter boomed out
of his net to take away any angle on a long shot, retreated to the
crease, then stood his ground when Bure deked and then kicked out his
right skate at the last nanosecond to make the save. ''A classic
confrontation between the game's most electrifying player and an
outstanding goaltender who doesn't get nearly enough credit,'' Keenan
said. The save reversed the momentum, and the Rangers' Sergei Zubov
scored to make it 2-2 late in that period.
The game, however, remained tied with fewer than five minutes
remaining in regulation. With New York on a power play, Leetch blew
past defenseman Brian Glynn at the Vancouver blue line and feathered
a gossamer pass over a stick to Alexei Kovalev, who hit the roof of
the Canuck net for the winning goal. Leetch said he had been
embarrassed by comparisons with Bobby Orr that Vancouver coach Pat
Quinn had bestowed upon him, but after Leetch's four-point night in
the Rangers' 4-2 win, it was Orr who would have been flattered.
Leetch was unofficially anointed the 1994 Conn Smythe Trophy
winner that night as the champagne was put on ice. Still, Messier
insisted that the Rangers would not become complacent. ''We're only
going to look ahead to the next 20 minutes,'' he said. Six 20-minute
periods later, the Stanley Cup was very much in doubt.
But on Monday, Keenan delivered a speech Messier called ''the most
intense, emotional, greatest speech I've heard in 16 years of
hockey.'' The Rangers seemed renewed in Game 7, twice taking two-goal
leads and holding off Vancouver by controlling three face-offs in
their own zone in the final 37.8 seconds.
In the stands a sign read NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE.