THE CUP OF SORROW After winning in 1940, the Rangers burned to break a jinx that brought heartache for 53 years

June 21, 1994

THE CONSTANT WAS THE NUMBER (1940). The players inside the
uniforms of the New York Rangers changed and management changed and
the arenas changed and the sticks changed and the skates changed and
styles certainly changed, short hair to long hair to hair hidden
inside plastic helmets, but the number never changed (1940). There
was no relief from the number (1940). It was painted in messy strokes
across bedsheets (1940) and printed in bold type in headlines (1940)
and shouted by loud antagonists everywhere (1940). Would there be no
end? The Curse of the Rangers (1940).
''I paid a bill for pizza this year,'' Ranger president and
general manager Neil Smith said. ''The amount was $19.40. I used to
eat at a place in Detroit called The 1940 Chop House.''
The number represented the last year the Rangers had won the Cup
(1940). There was no proof that a curse existed, but all those years
of ineptitude (53) also offered no proof against its existence. Each
shot that hit a crossbar, each leading scorer who limped away with a
broken ankle, each happenstance was added ammunition for true (1940)
The articles about the Curse were pat and simple. A few grainy
pictures would be shown, say, of D Day (1944). D Day? America hadn't
even entered World War II when the Rangers last won this Cup. Pearl
Harbor hadn't been bombed (1941). A little Glenn Miller music would
be played, giving way to Elvis and then the Beatles and then, fast
forward, right up to Pearl Jam (1994). The Montreal Canadiens had won
23 Cups, and the Cleveland Indians had even won a pennant (1954), and
sometimes it seemed as if Washington had crossed the Delaware (1776)
and Edison had invented the lightbulb (1879) since a Ranger had
skated across the ice with Lord Stanley's trophy (1940).
''One year it's a left wing we need to win the . . . we don't even
mention the words for it in our house,'' Clare Prevot, former
president of the Ranger Fan Club, an on-again, off-again
season-ticket holder since the days of Camille Henry and Harry Howell
(1953), said in a typical lament. ''We get the left wing, and then
it's a defenseman we need. Then it's a center. Nothing seems to work.
I've learned not to expect anything. You're always going to be
''Just 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
players' 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? It was out on loan. All this time, and we
still haven't seen it.''
Two stories, take your pick, were associated with the origin of
the Curse. One centered around a picture of General John Reed
Kilpatrick and the other officers of Madison Square Garden, owner of
the Rangers, burning the mortgage to the Garden in the Cup after
making their last payment (1941). Wasn't that a sacrilege, using the
Cup as a hibachi? Wasn't it courting doom from any and all hockey
The second story involved Red Dutton, manager of the competing New
York Americans. The Rangers forced the Americans out of business in
1941, and Dutton supposedly said, ''The Rangers never will win the
Cup again in my lifetime.'' Wasn't that a flat-out declaration of the
Curse? ''A lot of that was newspaper stuff,'' Dutton said with a wink
a few years before his death (1987), ''but newspapers can be right
Whatever happened -- or didn't happen -- a lot of bad hockey
certainly followed. The Rangers made the Cup final only once (1950)
in the next 32 years. In the first 27 of those years, playing in a
six-team league in which the top four teams qualified for the
playoffs, the Rangers qualified only nine times and never won more
than two games in a best-of-seven series except in 1950, when they
beat the Canadiens in round 1 and lost Game 7 in double OT to the
Detroit Red Wings for the Cup.
An NHL rule in the 1950s and '60s giving teams territorial rights
to all young players who lived within 50 miles of their cities worked
against the Rangers, with Montreal collecting talent from Quebec and
the Toronto Maple Leafs collecting talent from Ontario and even the
Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings able to reach across the
border. The Rangers were left to reach across to prospectless New
New York practiced in a tiny rink called Iceland, which was tucked
away in the nether regions of the old Madison Square Garden; one end
of it was shaped like an egg, and the boards were made of metal, so
pucks sounded like bullets as they ricocheted everywhere. Who could
handle that? And if the Rangers did make the playoffs? The Garden was
not available. The circus already had been booked for the building
every spring, and the Rangers had to play their most important games
on the road.
''There always was something,'' said John Halligan, the Rangers'
public- relations director from 1963 to '83 and from '86 to '90.
''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. The practice rink was
scrapped, and 48 lanes took its place.''
Mentions of the number (1940) and the Curse really were not made
often until the 1970s. The Rangers then made two trips to the Cup
finals ('72 and '79) and failed. It did not help in '72 that leading
scorer Jean Ratelle missed the finals with a broken ankle. It did not
help in '79 that coach Fred Shero, after an opening-game win in
Montreal, chose to keep the Rangers in the city rather than move into
seclusion, far from the nightlife on Crescent Street. Nor did it help
that in warmups before Game 2, a practice shot felled the Canadiens'
surprise starting goaltender, Bunny Laroque, and Ken Dryden had to
play. Dryden and the Habs then went on to win the next four straight.

The latest disappointment came two years ago (1992). Mark Messier
had been acquired and had pronounced that he was ''sick of seeing
that number wherever we go'' (1940). The Rangers stormed to the best
record in the league. Then the players went on strike a week before
the season ended. Everyone sat for 10 days. The playoffs began, and
the Rangers were bounced in six games by the Pittsburgh Penguins in
the second round. And then the talk and the signs of the Curse became
bigger and louder.
''It got crazier and crazier,'' Jim McDonald, a Ranger
season-ticket holder, says. ''That's all you heard, the Curse. There
never was any curse. Do you know what is a curse in sports? Bad
teams. Look at all the teams that are supposed to have curses -- the
Red Sox, the Cubs, whatever. They're all bad. The Rangers were bad.
This year, they're good. They're the best.''
So it has ended. The Rangers are champions. So much for the number
(1940). ^ So much for the years (53). A light has been turned on, and
the beast in the basement has turned out to be the oil heater or
maybe some noisy pipes or maybe a shade flapping next to an open
window. Or maybe Red Dutton and the hockey gods simply decided to
give a lot of accursed people a break.