The day? May 27, 1994.
The background? I was 26, an eighth grader at George Fisher Middle School and a budding hockey fan.
The setting? My parents basement in Carmel.
Hockey, in all its splendor, only began to appeal to me a couple years earlier, slotting just below a few others on my fandom radar. I’d toggle between Ranger and Knick games all winter as both teams proved they were juggernauts worthy of our attention. The ‘93-’94 Knicks prepared for a trip to the NBA Finals behind Patrick Ewing, John Starks and a few sharp elbows. The Rangers — a little history in their sights — stormed toward a Presidents’ Trophy with Mike Richter, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch swirling around Garden ice in their absolute primes.
But even the hockey season trudged on, I remember knowing enough then to know this: the Presidents’ Trophy meant nothing. I probably started following hockey closely two years earlier in what registered at the time with me to be a colossal flop: How could the best team do so poorly in the playoffs? The 1991-92 Rangers were bounced by Pittsburgh (a team, with a superstar, I absolutely hated) with hardly a whimper.
To be fair, looking back I didn’t understand the singular importance of momentum in hockey. Sure, other sports weren’t foreign to a team enjoying a hot streak, but the best teams seemed to always win the NBA, NFL or MLB playoffs. Even college basketball, with the UNLVs and Dukes kicking tail every March. So if the 1991-92 Rangers were the best, why the @#$% didn’t they win?
With the lesson learned, I looked toward the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs with a cynical eye. Did I listen and watch? Absolutely. I remember straining to hear a scratchy radio in the dark as Howie Rose (ironic to think it now) sent the Islanders off to a date with Mr. T. It probably only lasted that (very short) series for me to say, screw it, I believe again.
The day Game 7 of the conference final finally arrived, I spent the school day daydreaming about the game, watching time creep along like a row of newborn chicks crossing the street. If I asked a question in Earth Science that day it may have been the ubiquitous, “Are we there yet?”
Friends of mine were pumped for Game 7, too, and one of them, John Gug, hatched a plan: I would invite him and another friend of ours, Bodo, over to watch in my basement. To this day I’m not sure why or how my house and my little sports war room was chosen. Or how I played the role of bystander in its selection. But the details hardly mattered. The idea appealed to me and that was that. A quick chat with mom after I came home from school that day confirmed it: the viewing party was on.
My friends showed up later that afternoon and the games began. In my house, my brother and I formulated dozens of games from nothing. A personal favorite among me and friends was hockey played with wiffle ball bats wrapped in electrical tape, one of those stuffed indoor basketballs (wrapped in duct tape), furniture as goals and full-on checking. You may be surprised to learn this was never my mom’s favorite indoor game, although she occasionally allowed it. So we mostly played when no one else was home.
On this day, bastardized Thomson hockey played Third Eye Blind to Game 7’s Springsteen, a poor opening act for a legendary main event. Of course, we had fun; Game 7 turned out to be just that good.
As you know, Mark Messier delivered the Rangers back to Garden ice by guaranteeing Game 6. But Game 7 became something to behold on its own.
As eighth graders we were easily distracted by games of our own, watching the Rangers and Devils play deeper into night as we passed time with various modes of basement destruction nearby. But the longer it went, the more focused we became. With every minute we swung a bat or bounced a ball less. The Rangers led 1-0. The Stanley Cup was minutes away, then seconds. We were ready to share one of those awkward moments of spontaneous hugging like Rocky and Apollo in Rocky III, the Sistene Chapel of awkward male celebrations.
Boom. Not so fast. The Devils scored with 7.7 seconds left. A freshly sharpened dagger was stuck into our hearts in the cruelest moment of my sports fandom to that date.
“This wasn’t basketball,” I thought. “Teams just don’t score in the final seconds!”
Right after Valeri Zelipukin scored, it was like our ol’ friend Ira K. Doom slipped through the garage door and stretched out on the couch with his feet up. Did Ranger fans believe their team could win? I sure didn’t. Imagine the 30, 40 or 50-somethings who had never seen them win the Cup.
Heck, I was only 26. It could’ve been worse.
Still, the next 20-plus minutes of hockey tortured us, each chance bringing fans closer to heaven or hell and nowhere in between. When the Rangers finally won as Stephane Matteau poked one past Martin Brodeur, my friends and I had our Rocky III moment. I believe I still clutched the bat in one hand. Whether it hit something or someone while I flailed around celebrating I still don’t know. Or care. It must have. But the Rangers were playing for the Cup!
I don’t even know how long it took, only that the identity of the goal scorer was a mystery at first. For those of you tuned in on the radio, you knew. Matteau played 16 total seasons but his Game 7 winner is the second sentence on his Wikipedia page only because they listed his name and birthplace first.
Despite my Bart Simpson-like qualities, my sports fandom has felt like Groundhog Day. The buildup, the company, the agony and the ecstasy turned May 27, 1994 into a unique day, one I’ll never forget.
Of course, at my age, it seems like only yesterday.