Ask Adam Graves about 1994 and the memories come flooding out, like water from a fire hydrant someone opened on a hot summer day in the city.
“I can tell you, I played hockey since the time I was 5 years old,’’ Graves said in a phone interview this past week. “I’m close to 50 now, and I still play whenever I get the opportunity. And I have never played on a team that cared about each other and were that close as I did that year.’’
The Rangers will celebrate the 25th anniversary of their 1994 Stanley Cup victory on Friday before the current Blueshirts host the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden. For a few moments that night, Rangers fans will be able to forget about rebuilding, and the Feb. 25 trade deadline, and everything else. And those who are old enough to remember that triumph that was supposed to last a lifetime will lose themselves in going back in time to what seems like the last time hockey mattered in these parts.
Graves, who currently works with the Rangers in their hockey and business operations department, doesn’t think most about the great on-ice moments that get replayed all the time on the Garden video board, such as Stephane Matteau’s double-overtime wraparound goal against Martin Brodeur and the Devils in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Instead, he remembers how much fun it was to go to practice every day that season, how much he laughed in the locker room with backup goaltender Glenn Healy and forward Nick Kypreos and defenseman Jeff Beukeboom. He called that a privilege.
“There wasn’t a day that you didn’t want to get to the rink so that you could get into the locker room and laugh and have fun,’’ Graves said. “Those are the things that are hard to describe.’’
The pursuit of the Stanley Cup was a quest that lasted 54 years for the Rangers after the previous triumph — which Islanders fans especially delighted in reminding the Rangers fans hadn’t happened since “1940!”
The beginning of the end game to that ’94 Cup probably occurred when general manager Neil Smith signed Graves as a Group 1 free agent in the summer of 1991. It picked up steam a couple of months later when Smith was able to trade for Mark Messier at the start of the 1991-92 season.
Messier, Graves said, brought a much-needed swagger to the Rangers. He’d won five Stanley Cups in Edmonton and he understood the task. He made the Rangers declare, out loud, that winning the Cup indeed was the goal.
“We’re here to win the Stanley Cup’’ is what Messier said, according to Graves. “Let’s talk about it; let’s put it out there and let’s work toward it. Let’s not be intimidated by it; let’s not be shy about why we’re here.’’
Messier’s famous guarantee that the Rangers would win Game 6 in New Jersey to stay alive in the Eastern Conference finals — and his subsequent hat trick in the Rangers’ 4-2 victory — was pure Messier, according to Graves.
“I think he felt like our team needed some confidence and needed, you know, to take — I don’t know if it was to take some pressure off, or the attention, or what — but he felt like, as our leader, that that’s what needed to be done. He did it,’’ Graves said.
The Rangers finished first overall in the 1991-92 regular season but lost to the defending champion Penguins in the Patrick Division finals (Graves was suspended for four games in that series for a slash that broke Mario Lemieux’s hand in Game 2). They missed the playoffs in ’93 — Neil Smith fired coach Roger Neilson and replaced him with Ron Smith during the season — before Neil Smith hired Mike Keenan the following season and absolutely everything came together.
Graves doesn’t spend much time watching videos of that season. His memory of the key events is good enough: The failure to close out Vancouver in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final at the Garden; getting blown out in Game 6 in Vancouver; the electric atmosphere in the Garden before Game 7; John Amirante’s stirring rendition of the national anthem.
“I can remember in warmup, the Garden felt like it was packed, and you couldn’t hear the warmup music because everyone was chanting ‘we want the Cup,’ ’’ Graves said. “You couldn’t hear one word because it was so electric in there. And being lucky enough to stand at center, getting ready for the puck to be dropped, and you have Frank Sinatra [singing] ‘It’s up to you, New York, New York,’ those are the things that you — like, I’m literally smiling from ear-to-ear, thinking about just that energy, just that moment.
“And these are the things that are in time capsules in all of our minds and all of our hearts.’’