My column from The Journal News and lohud.com:
By Rick Carpiniello
If there was a moment on that June 14, 1994, night that told you about the Rangers, it was shortly after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final had ended, a 3-2, hearts-in-throats, dragon-slaying victory over the Vancouver Canucks at the Garden.
Brian Leetch had just been told that he would win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, the first American to do so.
Leetch sought out now-six-time champion Mark Messier, as he so often had, and tried to convince him that it should be a team award and that his teammates should come up with him.
“He put his arms around me and said, ‘No, no, no, no. You earned it. You go up there. And then you come back to the team,’ ” Leetch remembered. “Then they announced my name, I went up, picked it up, took some pictures, put it down and went right back to the team. That’s where my comfort level was.
“Being singled out at that moment, after being in the locker rooms and seeing guys beat up, day after day … you did it as a group. It was uncomfortable. That was the last place I wanted to be, even though that was something I was striving for — to be able to play your best and be noticed for playing your best. But to get to that point, after all we did as a group, it’s not someplace you really want to be.”
Sharing was something that team did, after its first Cup in 54 years and now its only one in 74, with a starved city and its environs, on a night Sam Rosen said “will last a lifetime” and for which a fan said, via a hand-made poster: “Now I can die in peace.” And there were others during the parade: “My Grandfather Thanks You, My Father Thanks You and I Thank You.”
On that day in the Canyon of Heroes, Mike Richter, riding in one of the floats, bathed in the celebration of the estimated 1.5 million-plus there and turned to Messier and Leetch and said, “I wish we could get a flat tire so we could stay right here.”
“My favorite memory is taking the Metro-North train from White Plains into the city for the parade,” Adam Graves said, “and getting on the train with (wife) Violet, and within two stops the entire car being full, and then the cars on either side being full of blue, singing, telling stories. It was my favorite train ride I’ve ever had.
“It was a celebration amongst the bigger Ranger family — something that will always stay with me.”
That is what was unique about the ’94 Cup. Immediately after the Rangers had their turn on the ice with it, Messier brought it over to the glass, where fans could reach over and touch it. That night, outside the Auction House on the Upper East Side, Esa Tikkanen allowed hundreds if not thousands of fans to hold it. For the better part of a month, New York shared it. It was on all the talk shows, and the Yankees issued a press credential for “Stanley Cup,” which was escorted to a game by Messier and Leetch.
“Our team in ’94 was very approachable,” Messier said. “We immersed ourselves in the community. We attached ourselves to charities, we were out in the public, we had a good time, and I think the fans could really identify with us. And we told our stories through the media, which enabled the fans to get to know the players. When they came to the rink, they had the ability to cheer for the team on more than just an entertainment level.”
Messier was asked if he’s paid for a drink in the city since 1994.
“A few,” he smiled. “But not many.”
Leetch didn’t know about sharing the Cup in that way.
“It all started with Mark,” he said. “He’d won five of them before. He knew the right thing to do at the right time. He brought it over to everybody at the glass, and I would have had no idea to do that. You’re a deer in the headlights. You just won it, and you’re swept up in the current.”
That night had been one of terror and joy, the sweaty-palms thought of blowing what had been a 3-1 series lead by losing a potential clincher at home in Game 5, then another in Game 6.
“There was just the feeling that you knew this was it, one way or another,” Leetch said. “There was no ‘Let’s try and finish it out’ or ‘Let’s get this over with.’ You had that buffer for a couple of games where things didn’t go well. … But you knew at that point, this was it. There was a finality coming at some point.”
Some say it was the longest 10 minutes of their lives, the second half of that third period. But those Rangers, now the favorite team in franchise history, held on.
“That was about as close a team as you’re going to find,” Graves said. “It’s funny because over the years — and we have teammates who are all over the globe — but when we do get together, other than we all look a bit older, and except for maybe Mess we’re not in as good a shape as we used to be, we don’t miss a beat. That is the one thing that stays eternal.
“People ask, ‘Well, what was it like as a player?’ And I say, ‘In New York, the same feeling we had as players, New Yorkers had, Rangers fans, the larger Ranger family had.’
“That’s why it was such a unique championship.”
Photos by Getty Images.