The New York Rangers open the 1993-94 season under pressure from an increasingly restless fan base. The Blueshirts are fresh off a playoff miss. Failure won’t do. The Original Six team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup in 54 years. The “1940” taunts ring out from rival fans on a nightly basis. Rangers GM Neil Smith expects better luck and better health from a talented lineup that includes captain Mark Messier, star defenseman Brian Leetch, steady goaltender Mike Richter, slick sophomore blueliner Sergei Zubov and newly acquired scoring winger Steve Larmer.
MIKE RICHTER: (New York Rangers goalie) The prior championship was in 1940, and you hear, “OK, so it was 49 years, then 50 years, then 51,” then it ends up being 54. Each year it ends up getting a little louder and a little more embarrassing, and you say, “Well, OK, I wasn’t here the last four decades.” But you own it, because it’s your organization and your job to change that history as quick as you can.
MARK MESSIER: (New York Rangers captain and center) No person wins any team championship by themselves. The only way you win is to have everybody feel that it’s their responsibility or priority to do as much as they can for the team. In that regard, my focus never changed from any year, whether it was the first year I played or the last year I played. I came in with the same focus of trying to galvanize the team to the best of my ability, to make sure everybody felt important and a part of the solution, and that year was no different.
The biggest off-season change in New York: hiring ‘Iron’ Mike Keenan, known as the toughest taskmaster coach in hockey.
NEIL SMITH: (New York Rangers GM) Keenan was a control guy. He took control of everything he possibly could.
RICHTER: One of the things he was very good at was trading on a reputation that was pretty well-earned. As soon you thought he might lose his marbles and scream, he didn’t. He’d lower his voice, be very quiet and maybe even give you a day off when you didn’t expect it. Plenty of other times, he’d lose his marbles and call people out and get pretty personal when you didn’t expect it. It was good. He kept us on our toes and made our practices significantly harder than maybe we were used to.
The only way you win is to have everybody feel that it’s their responsibility or priority
– Mark Messier
BRIAN LEETCH: (New York Rangers defenseman) It was similar to what we had heard, that he was going to be confrontational and we were going to skate. Right away I noticed a real uptick in our practices. I always believed Mike ran the best practices of any coach I’ve had. They were fast, and they weren’t long, but you moved nonstop. If you weren’t executing each drill the way he wanted, you stopped and did it again. He pushed buttons on players, myself included, right away, so it made for an interesting start.
RICHTER: There was a level of expectation that was never quite satisfied, which is good. Because then you have a team that’s working so hard in practice and in the preparation that the games sometimes seemed easy.
STEVE LARMER: (New York Rangers right winger) He always saw you continuing to grow and get better rather than getting to a level and flatlining it for a while. He’s always seen more in his players than the players actually saw in themselves.
MIKE KEENAN: (New York Rangers coach) I set the objective for the team in our first meeting, and that objective was to win the Stanley Cup. Mark definitely embraced the notion right from Day 1. What comes with that is to build a higher expectation, but that means you have to exert more energy and more quality play out of each player. We had a lot of experienced players who had won the Cup or been to the final that I had coached before. So they knew I wasn’t going to let up, but that I would be respectful of them and give them an opportunity to make their own adjustments and make team adjustments collectively when we had to.
ADAM GRAVES: (New York Rangers left winger) A lot of times when opponents came in, we were up by a couple goals before the end of the second period, because we came out of the gate and really played. Part of that was a mindset that was developed, and part of it was brought in by Mike, because you knew, if your first couple shifts weren’t what they needed to be, he would move to other players.
Keenan was tough, but he was a perfect fit for the Rangers, particularly because he jived with Messier. Never before had a captain understood Keenan’s philosophy so well.
KEENAN: I had experience coaching him in the Canada Cup, both in 1987 and 1991. And then, we’d built a bond and a trust level with each other and amongst the team. I did have a very important relationship with him. He was able to communicate with me if he thought we had to make some adjustments. He wasn’t hesitant to tell me.
MESSIER: He came in with a mission and a vision and really set the course for the team from the first day of training camp by showing us a parade down the ‘Canyon of Heroes.’
KEENAN: There was no hockey parade, no footage from 1940, so I showed a baseball parade, what it would look like if we won in New York. We had to rely on a Yankees’ championship parade.
The Rangers dominate the first half of the regular season, but Keenan isn’t satisfied with his group of players. He worries the team isn’t built to win in the playoffs, so he pressures Smith to make major changes. At the trade deadline, in a flurry of activity never before seen and not seen since, Smith turns a first-place team on its head. He trades young sniper Tony Amonte to Chicago for grinders Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan; sends Todd Marchant to Edmonton for faceoff specialist Craig MacTavish; and, in the biggest shocker, deals Mike Gartner to Toronto for Glenn Anderson in a swap of future Hall of Famers.
SMITH: It’s like men and Christmas shopping. When do you go out and buy your gifts? On Christmas Eve, right? Because you want to make sure when you’re getting something for someone, you get the best deal. You’re waiting to see which place has the biggest sale and then, finally, you decide. This is what happened in the NHL.
They really liked our team, didn’t they? There were only about 10 of us on the bus. The rest? Gone!
– Glenn Healy, Rangers goalie
RICHTER: Keenan kept saying, “Don’t be seduced by our success, the playoffs are a different ballgame, you need the toughness, you need the depth, you need the experience.” He was very clear about that. Neil had to pull the trigger at some point. The easier thing would have been to do nothing. We lost some great players and great people, but we added great players and people that fit what we needed perhaps a bit better.
KEENAN: I really encouraged Neil to make those trades, and I knew the players, so that was a big advantage, because we came up with one complete line for us, which was a very important line: Matteau, MacTavish and Noonan. I had coached against Craig before in the Cup final against Edmonton. I knew him and his work and his play and, of course, I coached Matteau and Noonan in Chicago. So we weren’t getting people we didn’t know. The Edmonton Oilers all knew Craig well, and Larmer knew the Chicago players, so it was kind of seamless when they came in.
MESSIER: We were sorry to see guys leave that were part of that year, and we were happy to see guys come in. And as we all know, that’s part of the business. We all know what we’re signing up for, and you just move on.
GLENN HEALY: (New York Rangers goalie) I can recall getting on the bus that morning in Calgary and going to practice and looking on the bus and thinking to myself, “Wow, they really liked our team, didn’t they?” There were only about 10 of us on the bus. The rest? Gone! You’re traded! It’s over!
The retooled Rangers win the Presidents’ Trophy and storm through the first two rounds of the playoffs, losing one game in total against the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. The Eastern Conference final, however, is a different beast. The Rangers draw the New Jersey Devils, a rising young team led by coach Jacques Lemaire and a quartet of future Hall of Famers: rookie Martin Brodeur in net and Slava Fetisov plus the two Scotts, Stevens and Niedermayer, on defense. The Devils finished second behind New York in the standings. The stage is set for a closely contested series.
LEETCH: We had beaten them every game in the regular season, so we had confidence. They played that defensive counterattack style, call it the trap, call it whatever you want. But they forced you into playing the whole ice, and when you dumped it in, Marty (Brodeur) would go get it and shoot it right back out and put it on someone’s tape going the other direction.
KEN DANEYKO: (New Jersey defenseman) Year after year, I continually hear the media and, I still have to defend it, I hear “trap” and that’s the way we won. But there’s no factual evidence to back anything up. Nobody ever mentions we were one of the top-scoring teams in the NHL in our winning years. The assumption is you sit back and just defend. Well, you can’t win that way. The word “trap,” Jacques Lemaire still chuckles at it to this day. He never said that word in our dressing room once. That was manufactured by somebody.
RICHTER: They played so well as a team, starting from the goal and out. Marty is a hell of a player, even when he was so young. He was great in that series and through the playoffs.
HEALY: When I was watching Brodeur live, it was fear. Because he could win the series by himself, and he nearly did.
RICHTER: Their back end was amazing. The defensive core that they had there, with the defense and goaltending and the responsibility of their forwards, they could shut teams down.
LEETCH: Whereas the first two series, we were able to skate and create opportunities, it was not so much a track meet, but it was definitely more an up-and-down game and it favored us, we knew we would have to be disciplined and willing to play low-scoring games and work out of the corners.
RICHTER: You didn’t have to worry about a Brett Hull or a Mario Lemieux, but they get one or two goals, the game could be quickly out of reach if they get much more than that. They were so solid defensively and in goal, so everybody became a threat under those circumstances. Bernie Nicholls put pucks to the net. John MacLean was playing great for them. Stephane Richer was always a threat given his shot and his ability to read a play. But the guy who was doing it all was Claude Lemieux. He’s the guy who’s a capable goal-scorer, but he understands how to get under your skin.
The series pits two close friends head to head: Messier and Daneyko.
DANEYKO: Growing up with Mark, knowing him since we were 10, we were dear friends. He was in my wedding party. It makes it hard at times when you’re close to somebody. But you see players do it all the time with friends and former teammates, and you almost want to play them harder. There was so much at stake here, and Mark being one of the all-time great players, for me, being a defenseman, I couldn’t have any sentimental mindset if I was going to be able to stop him.
STEPHANE MATTEAU: (New York Rangers left winger) It was a physical, physical series. And emotionally, it was very hard. It was a rollercoaster.
It’s a seesaw series. The Rangers jump out to a 2-1 lead but drop the next two games by a combined 7-2 margin, including a 4-1 letdown at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers trail 3-2 in the series, one defeat away from perpetuating the 1940 curse. During their off-day practice before Game 6, they expect the media will grill them. Messier, the captain, stares down a scrum. The New York Post’s Mark Everson asks the first question.
MARK EVERSON: (New York Post reporter) I don’t know for certain that I was the one who asked the first question. I couldn’t swear on a bible I was, but people seem to think it was me. It was not a planned fishing expedition. The answer was more important than the question.
STAN FISCHLER: (MSG Network hockey analyst) The Post is very punchy, like the Toronto Sun. The sense I got was that I wouldn’t say Everson suckered him into the comment, but somewhere along the line he kind of lured him into making the prediction.
EVERSON: I had no plan. I don’t think anyone was looking for a Joe Namath moment or anything like that. There were enough issues going on in that dressing room to go chasing stories left, right and center. So I wasn’t expecting anything. I think I asked him something to the effect of, “What’s going to turn this around?”
Messier’s answer: “I know we’re going to go in and win Game 6 and bring it back here for Game 7. We have enough talent and experience to turn the tide. That’s exactly what we’re going to do in Game 6.”
EVERSON: A few of us looked at each other and said, “Hmm. I could make a little story out of that, you know?” (laughs). Now is that a guarantee? Is that a promise? Is that a declaration? It wasn’t said, “I guarantee it.” It was just kind of a declaration.
FISCHLER: Messier made the comment, which I believe was somewhat taken out of context. I don’t think it was as pungent, as assertive, as it appeared in print. But of course that made headlines.
KEENAN: It was misinterpreted, because he didn’t actually verbally guarantee a victory. He said, “We will win.” When he was in the dressing room, and I happened to be in there, he was expressing his confidence in his teammates more than anything else. And of course, the media in New York ran with it, and it became headlines the next day and certainly was fuelled by the speculation of him saying it.
DANEYKO: It was putting the onus and confidence on his team. That’s what you’re supposed to do. And Mark, being the leader he is, is going to put that pressure on himself.
EVERSON: I could’ve asked him whether he wanted pickles or mustard on his ham sandwich. His answer would’ve been, “We’ll win.”
MESSIER: What transpired in the papers and the guarantee didn’t put any more pressure on me than I had already put on myself to try and find a way to win that game.
EVERSON: I said to my editors, “Hmm, you may want to look at this story and see what you think.” You just alert them to the content, as they’re very busy. Many sports, many stories going through. So you just alert them. They’re very good at running with stuff at our paper.
The next day, Messier’s image engulfs the entire front page of the New York Post sports section. The paraphrased quote, in block letters: “WE’LL WIN TONIGHT.” Manufactured by the media or not, ‘The Guarantee’ is real now.
MATTEAU: We didn’t have the Facebooks, Twitters back then. It would have been all over our phones. The only clip of papers available was, a media guy would come in the morning and put all the clips from the New York papers or New Jersey papers on the table. It was there for you to read it or not. I never read them.
LARMER: I don’t know that many of us even knew he had said that until after the fact. A lot of the times during the playoffs, you don’t tend to read the newspapers that much. You focus on what you need to be doing that day.
RICHTER: It was big. It was a moment. There was a great bit of anticipation for the game, and, honestly, we were laughing about it once everyone found out what took place. Mark was pretty funny about it. He just smiled, and everyone was like, “Oh my god, what have you done?”
BERNIE NICHOLLS: (New Jersey center) We absolutely got wind of what he said, just because it’s New York, right? It’s headlines.
RICHTER: Mark was very good about the messaging he used with the media, but this one was hilarious because it was so out there.
KEENAN: It was a positive thing, but it was taken in jest. The next day when we came in, we were all kibitzing with Mark, his teammates and myself, and we all had a bit of a laugh. It was diffused pretty easily amongst that group.
RICHTER: Mark took a lot of heat for it, but he was good. He owned it totally, probably didn’t anticipate how big the story was going to get, I think he was thinking more along the lines of, “Yeah, I have absolute confidence in this team.”
NICHOLLS: It wasn’t something we were upset about. I don’t even think it was a motivational thing for us. We just understood what he was doing. He’s the captain of their team. He feels they should win and play well. We still didn’t think they would win. We felt we were the better team and we were going to win Game 6 if he guaranteed it or not.
EVERSON: Everybody wanted to see what was going to happen. There wasn’t any worry he’d back off this. Messier knew what he was doing. Nobody puts words in his mouth. He set up the pieces on the chess table. Time to play the game.
MESSIER: Once the game started, luckily enough for me, I had a lot of experience playing in those types of situations, and the one thing that experience teaches you is you can’t get too far ahead of yourself. You have to stay in the moment and try and execute a game plan from the start of the game to the end.
The puck drops on Game 6 at New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne Arena, and it’s all Devils in the early going. Riding a raucous home crowd, they blitz Richter and the Rangers. First, Niedermayer’s pass attempt from the top of the circle deflects off the blade of Rangers center Sergei Nemchinov’s stick, right through Richter’s legs. Nine minutes later, Lemieux tips Niedermayer’s one-timer from the slot through Richter’s five-hole. The Devils lead 2-0.
RICHTER: The moment that Lemieux scored the second goal, I didn’t look at the bench. I was just shaking my head, because I was like, “Don’t pull me. I feel great. We’re gonna win this. Let’s calm down.”
KEENAN: You have to stay in the moment, and I wasn’t reflecting upon what the score was. We were down 2-0, and the reason it was only 2-0 was that Mike Richter was incredible in net and gave us an opportunity to get stabilized and get back in the game.
DANEYKO: Richter was incredible. I still don’t know if he gets enough credit to this day for how good he was. That game was all but over.
GRAVES: Mike Richter, as we all know, was fantastic in the regular season, but he saved his best hockey for when it meant the most, when it was playoffs or World Cup or Olympics. The bigger the game, the better he played.
The Rangers retreat to their dressing room trailing by two after one period. They’re discouraged but not ready to quit.
FISCHLER: When the first period ended, we were down the hall from the Rangers room, and there was a lot of shouting in the hallway from the Ranger side. Messier may have been one of the guys. I couldn’t tell, but it was a chaotic scene as they went into the room. It was noticeable. It looked like these guys were fighting among themselves. It was very noisy. If I was a Rangers fan and heard that, I would’ve said, “Holy Christ, they’re done.” I think at that point, Messier took over the team from Keenan. That was the sense I got.
DANEYKO: I could see Mark’s frustration at 2-0. We got behind the net once, and he was frustrated, almost demoralized. But the player he is, the leader he is, he was a guy who was able to climb out of it. Not many athletes can do that. He carried them the second part of that game.
The Rangers settle down early in the second period. Keenan decides to juggle his lineup, adding some electricity by placing dynamic youngster Alex Kovalev on a line with Messier.
KEENAN: I did double-shift Alex. I knew he was fresh, he was young, he had a lot of legs, and he was a threat. When I did that, it gave us more offensive thrust. As a result, they combined for some very important goals. Alex really made a difference in upping the ante as far as offense was concerned.
Late in the second period, following a Devils turnover, Messier gains the zone. He leaves a drop pass for Kovalev, who fakes a slapshot, then unleashes one, beating Brodeur to the blocker side. The Rangers cut the lead to 2-1 by the second intermission.
RICHTER: When Alex scored, I said, “Man, for all the people you want to contain, on our team, Leetch, ‘Mess’ and ‘Zubby’ and Graves, then you get Alex. Where’d he come from?” Just a complete player, plays hard, you can’t intimidate him, a great guy to have, and that can get demoralizing for the other team. You may set out a job to contain certain guys, but there’s that whack-a-mole situation against a great team.
DANEYKO: He was a young, very gifted player. He was another guy you had to watch with the ability and the puck skills and what he was capable of. That was his coming-out party of having a real good, successful career. He was a star-type player in the making.
RICHTER: He was so capable of breaking out at any moment and, of course, he did that with a shot at the end of the period that starts to build momentum for us and maybe put a seed of doubt in their mind.
The Messier takeover kicks into overdrive in the third period. Kovalev threads a pass through the Devils’ defense, Messier collects it and sneaks a backhander past Brodeur. It’s a 2-2 tie.
NICHOLLS: Mark’s first goal in the third was, for Marty, just a really soft goal. He came down on his off wing, and it was a backhand. Marty is, in my opinion, the greatest goalie in the history of hockey, and we’d gotten this far in the playoffs because of Marty, but it happens, fluky goals, soft goals. It was a goal that probably never should have happened, but it did. It just snowballed from there.
KEENAN: I don’t think Marty was off, because they were some pretty spectacular goals. Alex off the right wing shooting left was a fabulous goal, and Mark’s was a fabulous goal. Marty played pretty well, I thought. He was very solid even as a youngster. Very consistent.
Roughly 10 minutes later, Leetch feeds Kovalev, who fires a snapshot. Brodeur kicks a fat rebound right to Messier, who stuffs it home to put the Rangers up 3-2. The captain has the tying goal and go-ahead goal.
Trailing late in the third, the Devils get a power play. They pull Brodeur for a 6-on-4 advantage. Messier intercepts a pass in front of the net, corrals the puck and fires it the length of the ice into a yawning cage. It’s a natural hat trick, all in the third period. The score is 4-2. The Rangers force a Game 7. Messier has delivered on ‘The Guarantee.’
RICHTER: I didn’t think about that story again until he took the puck in the last minute or so and twirled around and took a blind wrist shot from basically our slot, and it lands somewhere around center ice, and I’m looking at it going, “Holy s—, he’s gonna get a hat trick.” He’s got the game-winner, and he predicted it (laughs). I was just shaking my head. The puck wasn’t even in, and you knew the story was already written.
HEALY: So you make the guarantee, it makes headlines, and you score three goals in the third period? Seriously? How many of us have had these great plans, and they never come to fruition? Then the greatest leader in sports makes them and seals the deal with a hat trick, on his own, in the third. Never discount what ‘Mess’ says. That’s one thing I’ve learned.
DANEYKO: He’s as good a competitor and leader as there ever was in sports. If you weren’t prepared to play him hard and focused, it was trouble.
RICHTER: What was so cool was, when that goal went in, Mark came over, and he didn’t go to the bench and high-five individuals. He just hugged the whole middle of the bench. It was a perfect ending to that game watching him go over there and shoot the shot, and then continue on and come over to the bench, and you could see the expressions of everybody: “Holy s—!” It was as much celebration as it was laughing.
GRAVES: It was as close a team as I’ve ever played on.
NICHOLLS: Looking back now, for all of us, you go, “Holy s—.” Not only did he guarantee it, but the bastard scored three goals, too. As a fan of hockey and an athlete, I go, “Good for you.” I’ve always loved great athletes doing great things.
The epic series comes to an epic end in Game 7. The Devils tie the game with eight seconds left in the third period at MSG, and Matteau scores in double overtime to send the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final.
NICHOLLS: That was the best series I’ve ever played in, even though we lost. To go seven games, three in overtime, one in double overtime, that’s unbelievable as an athlete.
DANEYKO: That was a heck of a series. It had star power, Hall of Famers, two of the best goaltenders ever, and it was nasty. All the stuff I love about the game.
MESSIER: When Matteau scored the goal to win the series, I immediately switched into, “What’s next?” For us, and for myself personally, I just fell back onto the fact I had been in those situations before. Obviously, it was an amazing feeling to get by the Devils in the way we did, but you don’t sit there and rest on your laurels too long. It’s the playoffs, it’s Game 7, you’re playing two days later, so the celebration was short and quick.
The Rangers defeat the Vancouver Canucks in another enormously entertaining seven-game war. The curse ends. Messier hoists the Cup for the New York fans. The Rangers are NHL champions for the first time in 54 years.
Holy s—. Not only did he guarantee it, but the bastard scored three goals, too.
– Bernie Nicholls, Devils center
MESSIER: It was an amazing feeling to see generations of fans that finally got to see the Stanley Cup in New York and on Madison Square Garden ice. It was a lifelong dream for many fans, a lifelong dream for many people in the organization and for a lot of the players as well. I don’t think words can describe what happened and the feeling that transpired because of that win, many years later. To this day, we’re all very appreciative of the efforts from all the people, not only the players, but the Rangers organization, all the way through, that made that championship possible.
RICHTER: You felt like, “Wow, I can pay these people back for their support.” It was a really good feeling to share that. It was a pretty damn cool moment when ‘Mess’ got the Cup and brought it over to the fans and they were hopping and touching it.
No one will ever know whether ‘The Guarantee’ made the difference between winning or losing the Cup in 1994. But considering how close the final two series were, it’s possible.
KEENAN: It would never hurt. If the players recognized what Mark felt about the group, then that was important.
NICHOLLS: I don’t think so. If Mark gives that speech in the dressing room and the world doesn’t know about it, there’s no difference. Obviously, it was just meant to be. As a leader, he was trying to build his team up. And regardless if it came out in public or not, he made his message perfectly clear to the guys, so the outcome wasn’t going to change. Instead of, “Messier guarantees a win,” it would be, “One of the greatest captains of all-time leads his team to victory in a crucial Game 6.”
FISCHLER: There are all kinds of psychological factors that play into it. And it didn’t matter to anyone who read the headline or read the prediction that Mark was kind of suckered into saying it by a reporter asking him a leading question. It’s right there on the page.
– with files from Ronnie Shuker