It was thrilling 20 years ago, too

Rangers goalie Mike Richter (right) raises the Stanley Rangers goalie Mike Richter (right) raises the Stanley Cup next to teammate Mark Messier as the Rangers celebrate their win over the Canucks on June 14, 1994. Photo Credit: Paul Bereswill

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The only way to grasp the moment from June 14, 1994, is to see it in the context of years, decades and lifespans.

Marv Albert captured it on radio, saying that the Rangers had won the Stanley Cup, ''something most people never thought they would see in their lifetime.''

On television, Sam Rosen shouted, ''The waiting is over! The New York Rangers are the Stanley Cup champions! And this one will last a lifetime!''

In the Madison Square Garden stands, a forward-thinking fan raised this placard as the celebration erupted: ''Now I Can Die in Peace.''

On the ice, though, it was clear what really was being put to rest, and it was not one of the faithful. Adam Graves, who had scored the second goal in a 3-2 Game 7 win over the Vancouver Canucks, looked into the TV camera and sang, ''Nine-teen For-ty!''

It was one last reprise of the anthem that had haunted the Rangers, a taunting reminder from Islanders and Devils fans about 54 years of disappointment.

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''You had heard it so much for years before that. They always talked about it,'' Graves said recently, with a grin of recollection about his solo. ''It was just one of those things that was a lot of fun.''

What happened that season, culminating on that night, was more than fun for the Rangers and their fans. It was a sea change.

When they hoisted the Cup, then followed it down the Canyon of Heroes and carried it all over New York City, the 1994 Rangers transformed the franchise's identity. No longer would it be defined by a Chicago Cubs-like drought that began after the 1940 title. The Rangers would have a new banner to hang from the ceiling, to be followed by the retired jerseys of Graves and 1994 teammates Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter.

 

Weight off their backs

Relief and joy made for a heady cocktail that night.

There was a reason that Messier, the captain who had been brought in specifically to put the Rangers over the top, leaped up and down and shook the Cup with the exuberance of a schoolboy even though he had won it five times before with the Oilers. The song ''Simply the Best,'' which the Rangers had played in their locker room before the game, poured out of the Garden speakers. This was simply different.

Nineteen-ninety-four meant that, at least for the next half-century, Rangers teams could play without feeling as though there was an 800-pound gorilla on their backs. The 1994 alumni are always welcomed back, as they have been lately, like royalty.

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''I look at some pictures. I had the mullet going, I was 20 or 30 pounds lighter. I was just a kid,'' said Stephane Matteau, who scored the most memorable goal of that season (or perhaps any Rangers season), a double-overtime shot in Game 7 of the semifinals against the Devils. ''Now I'm a grownup and I have two kids. I cherish the moment even more than I did back then. I can't believe it's been 20 years.''

Jeff Beukeboom, the strong defenseman who now coaches in the Rangers' system and has developed some of the players who have brought the team back to the Final, said, ''It's amazing how time flies and at the same time it doesn't. I don't know how to describe it. But it has been 20 years. The calendar is not wrong.''

Nor is the record book, which always will show that the Rangers were the best team in the NHL (52-24-8) during the 1993-94 regular season.

''The year before, I was with the Islanders. We had a pretty good team and we went to the final four, a good group of guys,'' said Glenn Healy, the backup goalie in 1994. ''Then I went to training camp with the Rangers the next year, and after the very first day, I thought, 'This team can win the Cup.' They were that fast and that good and had so many leaders, guys who had championship rings.''

But stunningly, general manager Neil Smith remade the team at the trading deadline, acquiring experienced, gritty players who suited coach Mike Keenan: Craig MacTavish, Glenn Anderson, Brian Noonan, Matteau.

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''It seemed like each guy we traded for had a championship ring, or two or five,'' said Healy, who worked this year's conference final as the rinkside television analyst for Hockey Night in Canada on CBC. "Everyone accepted a lesser role to be with a better team. Mac-T went from being captain of the Oilers and playing 16 minutes a game to playing five.''

 

An emotional time

The 1994 Rangers blitzed the Islanders and Capitals in the first two playoff rounds, then needed all of their strength and moxie to survive the Devils series, which they trailed three games to two heading into Game 6 in the Meadowlands.

In practice the day before, Messier issued the most famous guarantee in Rangers history. He delivered with a hat trick, which set up Game 7 and a goal made famous by Howie Rose's radio call: ''Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!''

''It's been 20 years and I've been retired for 10 years,'' Matteau said. ''[But] it seems like it's building over and over.''

Ultimately, the exorcism in the championship series seemed a formality. The Rangers went ahead three games to one, with Anderson scoring two game-winners and Richter stopping Canucks star Pavel Bure on a penalty shot -- a rare one-on-one opportunity in the pre-shootout days -- in Game 4. But 54-year-old demons don't go quietly.

''There were times when the Ghosts of 1940 were there,'' Healy said. ''I think everyone believes in the hockey gods. At times everyone was thinking, 'Maybe it's fate. Maybe we're not getting this.' ''

When asked about Game 7, Beukeboom said, ''I remember Game 5 more because everyone was expecting us to win in five. Then we stubbed our toe and we went back there and lost and everyone became very nervous. The good thing about it was we had two days off between Games 6 and 7, and I think that really helped us.''

John Amirante, the one Rangers representative on the ice both then and now as the national anthem singer, recalls not being able to hear himself sing before Game 7 because the crowd was unimaginably loud.

''Channel 4 taped me singing outside before the game and they dubbed it,'' said the Long Island man whose first Garden appearance came in 1980 for a game against the Kings.

The tumult grew even louder when Leetch -- the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as most valuable player of the playoffs -- took a pass from Sergei Zubov to score the first goal.

The noise level rose when Graves and Messier added goals, when Richter and a goalpost held off a frantic Canucks rally and when MacTavish won one last defensive-zone faceoff with 1.6 seconds remaining.

Emotions on the ice burst, with an impression that the players were raising the Cup in honor of 54 years' worth of Rangers. The feeling rolled with the team down Broadway three days later.

''We took the train down because we thought there would be some traffic,'' Graves said. ''I remember getting on the train and our car was rather empty. But within a couple of stops, it was full and it was shaking back and forth, with singing. That was probably one of my favorite memories of '94. Hundreds of Rangers fans on the train, just telling stories and cheering and singing. It was fantastic.''

Beukeboom said, ''I'm a bit of a history fan and I remember seeing the D-Day parades. I basically was in awe of the fact that I'm doing what these veterans got to do when the war ended in the '40s. That was inspirational for me. It was amazing.''

 

Changing of the guard

In local hockey history, 1994 turned out to be a seminal year. After the Rangers' sweep of the Islanders, Al Arbour went into his office, closed the door and had a long talk with team officials. Aside from a ceremonial game in 2007, he never coached again.

The Devils shook off the disappointment of Matteau's goal and won the Stanley Cup the next year, and twice more. In 2012, they drafted Matteau's son Stefan in the first round.

Keenan never did hit it off with Smith and left the next season to become general manager and coach of the Blues. He later returned as a commentator on Rangers telecasts and recently coached Metallurg to its first title in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

Albert's son Kenny is now the Rangers' radio voice, no doubt planning his own signature phrase if the team wins again.

Rosen was honored in December for his 30 years behind the MSG Network microphone.

Amirante, who sang the anthem via telephone on David Letterman's show during the 1994 run, continues to get the crowd revved up at the Garden.

Mostly, though, 1994 still is about what happened to the team. The 2014 Rangers have heard many roars and some boos, but not one ''Nine-teen For-ty.'' They owe it to the fellows who received the hero's welcome 20 years ago.

''It was too quick,'' Matteau said, thinking back. ''I remember the place went crazy, but it was too quick.''

Maybe, maybe not. It seems to be lasting a lifetime.

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