He is sitting in front of the TV and squirming as if he were
watching outtakes from a Quentin Tarantino film. His New York
Rangers were toying with the Boston Bruins a moment ago, but the
Bruins just plunged two quick goals into his heart to cut New
York's lead to 4-3. Now the seat-belt light is on, and Neil Smith
is holding on for his life.
He is the president and general manager of the Stanley Cup
champion Rangers, and at times Smith watches home games from a
small lounge tucked behind his box in a corner high atop Madison
Square Garden. From there he can make phone calls, watch replays
and avoid the temptation to jump. The room is not much bigger than
a washing machine, and at this point in the season Smith feels as
if he has been put through the spin cycle.
``This is the part of the job that drives you crazy,'' said Smith,
before his team held on to beat Boston 5-3 last Friday night. ``It
doesn't matter how many games you watch. It seems like nothing
ever comes easy for us.''
The Rangers took their fans to the mountaintop last June, and 10
months later they are threatening to shove them off. Last year the
Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940, and at
week's end, with eight games to go in this lockout-induced 48-game
regular season, they were tied with the Hartford Whalers for the
eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. No
playoffs? No Rangers? ``It's hard to believe,'' says New York
forward Adam Graves, ``but that's our goal now -- make the
New York could become the first team since the 1969-70 Montreal
Canadiens to miss postseason play one year after having won the
Cup. The Blueshirts' collapse would be nearly as stunning as their
historic championship. This is New York. Nothing is done quietly.
This team could go down in history as the NHL version of the
one-championship-and-out New York Mets of the late 1980s, without
the chemical additives. Iron Mike Keenan, who quit as the Rangers'
coach last summer in a celebrated huff because his bonus check was
one day late, wouldn't be the only one giggling if the great New
York dynasty of the 1990s crumbles quicker than the regime of
``I'm sure everyone else is enjoying this because most people
outside of New York can't stand the Rangers,'' says Graves.
``But we're not worried. We're confident that we can finish
strong and make the playoffs, and then it's a new season. You
can be sure no one wants to play us in the first round.''
The Rangers, who were 18-19-3 at week's end, have lost 10 games by
one goal. They have scored two goals or fewer 19 times. They
recently dropped 10 of 12 games, which might not be a reason to
dial 911 in a normal NHL season. This isn't a normal season. With
the abbreviated schedule, there is no time to sleep off the
Stanley Cup hangover. ``This is no different than the year
following any other championship,'' says Mark Messier, who won
five Cups with the Edmonton Oilers before coming to New York in
1991, ``except that this season is shorter, so every game is
``Last year everything went right for us,'' says goaltender Glenn
Healy. ``Every time we needed a big save or big goal we seemed to
get it. Even the calls seemed to go our way. This year, it's the
``It went pretty quickly from euphoria to panic,'' says Smith.
``Of course, it's not a very long trip in this city.''
In two of the previous three seasons, the Rangers finished with
the best record in the NHL. They won only 34 of 84 games and
missed the playoffs the year in between. It was as if Tom Hanks
slipped another season of Bosom Buddies between his two Oscars.
``This is nothing like two years ago,'' says Messier. ``No one is
panicking. Winning the Cup gave us something to build on. We've
got a lot of experienced players, and we've got excellent
leadership off the ice.''
Indeed, to stand in the New York dressing room and read the names
over the stalls causes one to wonder how the Rangers ever lose a
game. Seven of their 20 regulars have played in an All-Star Game.
They are a veteran team that was put together with another
championship or two in mind. The '94 Cup may have been one of the
most dramatic in league history, but without another title to go
with it, the Messier era would be plagued with an undeniable void.
``Just look at their roster,'' says Harry Sinden, president of the
Bruins. ``They're as good as they were last year. I'll tell you
what: If they get in the playoffs -- even if they finish eighth
-- they'll be the favorite.''
The Rangers had lost four straight games when Smith acquired
30-year-old right wing Pat Verbeek on March 23 from the Whalers
for two players and two draft picks. Smith thought Verbeek was
the ideal addition to his underachieving team -- tough and
relentless, with a proven ability to score. At week's end
Verbeek had seven goals since the trade. But after 12 years in
the NHL and only four trips to the playoffs, Verbeek couldn't be
blamed if he felt cursed. He finally escaped the inept Whalers
and joined the world champs, and here he is again, right
alongside his old pals on Hartford, fighting to make the
``But this isn't like some places where guys get down on
themselves and everyone starts worrying if you can turn it
around,'' he says. ``No one here blames anyone else. It's really
been an enjoyable experience for me.''
The Rangers would like to turn this season around for a number of
reasons. The list begins with the name of the man behind the
bench. Rookie coach Colin Campbell is the guy who replaced the
disliked and dictatorial Keenan, which makes him a hero to most
people in the Ranger dressing room. Players often say they would
like to win for their coach. The Rangers mean it. They call him
Colie or Soupy, and they genuinely like him. ``He's a good person
and a good coach, and how can you not pull for a guy like that?''
says defenseman Kevin Lowe, who played with Campbell in Edmonton
To many people in the New York organization, winning the Cup
caused mixed emotions: They were thrilled to get rings, but they
cringe when they hear all the credit that goes to Keenan. The team
barely slipped past the New Jersey Devils and the Vancouver
Canucks in the Stanley Cup semifinals and finals, respectively,
and now some observers prefer to say that Keenan drove them like a
steamroller through the playoffs.
``Only the players in this room and the people in this
organization realize how close the whole thing was to blowing up
in [Keenan's face] last year,'' says Healy. ``It's not only unfair
to say that this wouldn't have happened if Mike hadn't left, it's
wrong. We might have been worse if he hadn't left. With his
antics, who knows where we'd be now?''
After leading the Rangers into history, Keenan left New York in a
hurry. He signed a reported six-year, $12 million deal with the
St. Louis Blues in July, a contract that no one in New York
expects him to complete. ``You've got to understand one thing
about Mike,'' says one Ranger. ``He comes with an expiration
When Keenan departed, Campbell stepped out onto the high wire
without a net. His captain, Messier, held out during training camp
in a contract dispute, and then the owners locked out the players.
When the two sides finally came to terms on a new collective
bargaining agreement in January, Campbell had a short season and a
difficult act to follow. It took the Rangers 54 years to win the
Cup. Campbell had three months to repeat.
For the most part, Campbell has escaped the wrath of the New York
media and of the boo-birds in the Garden's cheap seats. An
occasional shut-in will call a sports talk show and accuse him of
taking the players to Chuck E. Cheese when they should be
practicing, but the general feeling is that the 42- year-old
Campbell, who had been an assistant coach for nearly 10 years, has
earned this chance.
``The biggest myth in New York right now is that Colie is not
tough enough,'' says Smith. ``He played 11 years in the NHL when
you had to fight every night. He's as tough as they come. The
difference between Colie and Mike is that Colie treats the players
like people. He knows he's not dealing with circus bears. The
problem with the crazy talk-show callers is that they can't seem
to fathom that the fault could lie with their darling
Time is running out on their darling superstars. Brian Leetch,
the former Norris Trophy winner, had just four goals in the first
38 games before scoring two against the Bruins. Through Sunday,
Graves, who set a Ranger record with 52 goals in 1993-94, had
only one goal in the last 16 games. Petr Nedved, who scored 38
goals two seasons ago with the Canucks, had seven. The power play,
best in the league last year, ranked 12th in the NHL. They have
two weeks to prove they weren't one-shot wonders, the Mets on
The Rangers made history last year. Right now they would just like
to make the playoffs.