We all know what 1994 meant to all the Ranger fans all around the world, but the year 1997 will always stand out in my mind. That was the only season that Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves and Mike Ricther all got to play together and if it wasn’t for some key injuries (namely Leetch playing valiantly with a hurt wrist and some others ailing as well) and the dominant performance of Eric Lindros for the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, we could possibly taking about 1997 as a Stanley Cup year too.
While the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, I moved away from New York to a small town called Doylestown (a suburb of Philadelphia), and imagine how my Rangers jacket and championship T-shirts went over there. Eventually, in 1996-1997 I ended up in Houston, Texas. After a return trip to New York to visit family, I attended my first Rangers game against the Los Angeles Kings and was hooked, despite missing the second period while I had to wait outside a suite as my dad partied it up with some suits. My family was heavily into hockey since my uncle got a job at Madison Square Garden working as a video replay judge, but after seeing it live I could not wait to get back to Houston and start playing. I met a kindred hockey spirit in middle school – he was a Flyers fan though- but we both loved the sport and began learning how to play roller hockey before eventually graduating to the ice.
My grandmother bought me my first pair of gloves — black, red and blue Mark Messier Louisville’s — and I used those until the palms came off. When my grandmother died years later, I always remember that she got me my first pair of hockey gloves.
I spent the year of 1997 learning how to play and trying to watch all the Ranger games that would come on ESPN. I’d play my NHL Faceoff ’97 game on Play Station religiously, and my Flyer fan friend and I could not enough hockey.
While I was adding to my hockey addiction, the Rangers put together a memorable season. It was, for starters, Gretzky’s first season on Broadway, reunited with Messier (anyone else remember the ‘New York’s Finest’ posters that came out with Gretz and Mess on them?). Gretzky did not disappoint, leading the team with 25 goals and 72 assists for 97 points. Messier was just behind with 84 points and continued to be the best captain in the entire league with his combination of skill, passion and grit. Leetch had one of his finest seasons too, winning his second Norris Trophy for best defenseman and further established his reputation of being one of the game’s great blue liners.
Superstars aside, this 1997 team also had the likes of Niklas Sundstrom ( I was convinced he would be a star), Ulf Samuelsson, Jeff Beukeboom, Doug Lidster, Luc Robitaille and countless others ( heck, I even thought Christian Dube and Daniel Goneau were pretty rad too).
The memories came in the playoffs. Gretzky blasting slap shot after slap shot past John Vanbiesbrouck for a hat trick as the Rangers knocked off the Florida Panthers in the first round. Anyone else remember the gutsy performances the rest of the playoffs by Esa Tikkanen and Russ Courtnall? What about Graves’ (wearing the fresh new Liberty head third jersey) series-clinching wrap-around on Martin Brodeur to knock out the Devils in overtime? I really felt if it wasn’t for Lindros’ coming-out party in the next round, the Rangers could have possibly beaten Detroit. That summer was a depressing one for Ranger fans, as just as my away blue starter Messier jersey arrived in the mail, a week later he bolted to the Vancouver Canucks.
The point of this column is what makes this game great — that certain moments in time can elicit bold memories from on the ice and from our own world.
Afternoon update: Kovy speaks.
Not that I see anybody’s been clamoring for this, but here’s a link to Kovalchuk’s press conference this afternoon and the story about his desire to be “a Devil for life.” Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we.