For Rangers, no better feeling than long-awaited Cup

Fifteen years ago, President Clinton was in the White House, the economy was growing, gasoline was $1.10 a gallon and Madison Square Garden hosted a perfect storm in pro sports: Both the Rangers and Knicks electrified the metropolitan area by battling to the NHL and NBA Finals.

And Sunday night marks the 15th anniversary of the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup.

The Garden had rocked since it opened in 1968: for two Ali-Frazier bouts, performances by Led Zeppelin and The Who, during historic Democratic and Republican conventions.

But for a string of weeks as spring stretched toward summer in 1994, the mecca lived up to its moniker. The Rangers and Knicks marched through the playoffs on nail-biting victories and stretched the championship series to win-or-go-home Game 7s. The Rangers edged the Vancouver Canucks, ending a 54-year Stanley Cup drought; the Knicks came up just short against the Houston Rockets.

"It was a unique situation," Rangers forward Adam Graves recalled. "What made it so special was that it was at the Garden, with its history, and the fact that both teams were part of the family, with the same ownership, and the long relationship the teams have with the city. There was a passion, an energy that we felt collectively, not just players, but coaches, management, training staffs, fans."

Graves had won the Cup with the Oilers in 1990, but unlike Edmonton, a hockey-only town, the Rangers and Knicks shared in the night-after-night excitement. "We were very conscious of that," Graves said. "We would cross paths with the Knicks in the dressing rooms and it was always supportive and respectful."

Before the Knicks hosted the Rockets in Game 4, Rangers captain Mark Messier carried the Cup into the locker room and at halftime displayed the silver trophy at center court to thunderous applause.

"First of all, it's gone by so fast, but I remember it vividly, it was just one . . . entity - the building, the players, the crowd," said winger Ed Olczyk, who came to the Rangers from Winnipeg in 1992 and was a role player during the run. "I played a small part, but it was amazing because there was anticipation, and there was hesitation: 'Is this really going to happen after 54 years?' "

Now a game analyst for Versus and the Blackhawks, Olczyk said: "Ever since then, every time I go to the Garden, the fans tell me, 'Thanks for '94.' It'll be forever.''

Even former players reveled in the giddy atmosphere. After the Rangers hoisted the Cup the night of June 14, Rod Gilbert - the Rangers' all-time leading scorer from Montreal who never lifted the trophy in his 18 seasons on Broadway - was hammering the glass on the sideboards. "I was so excited," Gilbert recalled, "I lost my voice - in two languages."

Rangers fans have had little to celebrate since. The team made the playoffs the next three seasons, led by Wayne Gretzky in 1996-97, then slid into a seven-year tailspin - capped by the leaguewide lockout. The heroes from 1994 - Messier, Graves, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter - have their numbers hanging from the rafters, but it wasn't until the spring of 2006 that there was a Garden postseason party again. Names have come and gone: from Rico Fata to Niklas Sundstrom to Jaromir Jagr, and many of the cheers have turned to jeers.

Every athlete understands the pressures of playing in New York, the acid taste of losing and the sky-high sweetness of winning.

"It's very, very difficult," Richter has said. "But you take every bit of those boos and every bit of those hard times because the payoff of winning in New York makes it absolutely every bit worthwhile.''

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