Neil Smith was sure of two things when he began his day on March 21, 1994: His New York Rangers were atop the NHL standings, and they weren't good enough to win the Stanley Cup.
There was a third thing: With the NHL Trade Deadline hours away, he had work to do.
The fifth-year general manager arrived in the summer of 1989, a couple of months after New York was swept out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins, extending the Rangers' drought to 49 years.
Smith cut his hockey teeth about 30 miles away from Madison Square Garden with the New York Islanders during their run of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83. The last three of those, as well as the trip to the 1984 Stanley Cup Final, included playoff victories against the Rangers, with the fans on Long Island chanting "19-40!," reminding their big-city rivals of the last time they had won the Cup.
Smith went on to the Detroit Red Wings and played a role in their improvement in the later 1980s, but he was largely unknown when the Rangers hired him as GM.
In part due to a series of astute trades, the Rangers won the Patrick Division in 1989-90 and the Presidents' Trophy two years later. The centerpiece was an Oct. 4, 1991 deal that brought five-time Stanley Cup winner Mark Messier to New York. Messier won the Hart Trophy in 1991-92, and that deal not only gave the Rangers the No. 1 center they lacked, it changed the culture of the franchise.
"I wasn't totally aware of the impact he would have," said Smith, now an analyst for NHL Network. "I knew he would have an impact on us because he'd won five Stanley Cups and been on all those Team Canadas and been a captain, and I knew he was the real deal. But when you see it first-hand and you live it, it's even more amazing.
"He had a huge influence on the franchise; more than even on the team, he left a mark on the franchise that's going to be there forever. His presence changed the team from being perennial losers to almost perennial winners. I wanted to end all that [stuff], that '1940' thing, the 'long-suffering' and all that, and if anyone was able to be a silver bullet for all that, it was Mark."
Two years later, Messier was the leader in the dressing room, surrounded by a core of talent that included goaltender Mike Richter, defenseman Brian Leetch and a deep group of forwards led by Messier, linemate Adam Graves and future Hall of Fame member Mike Gartner.
Under new coach Mike Keenan, the Rangers stumbled through October but soon took off and moved to the top of the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference and, by the end of 1993, the overall NHL standings.
The Rangers were still there in late March, but their lead on the New Jersey Devils was down to one point. New York had been beaten soundly at home by the Detroit Red Wings, one of the leading teams in the Western Conference, and on the road by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the top team in the Northeast Division. The Rangers were routed 7-3 by the Chicago Blackhawks at Madison Square Garden on March 18.
The Rangers were off until March 22, when they would begin a road trip with a game against the Calgary Flames. As it turned out, the lineup that slunk off the ice at the Garden after the loss to the Blackhawks would be a lot different than the one that skated onto the ice in Calgary four nights later.
Smith was no stranger to making trades, especially at the deadline. He acquired Gartner four years earlier, helping the Rangers win their first division title in 48 years. A deadline-day deal in 1991 brought in forward Joey Kocur, a 1992 swap landed defenseman Jay Wells, and deals at or near the deadline in 1993 brought forwards Esa Tikkanen and Mike Hartman.
The Rangers had plenty of skill but not enough grit to suit Keenan, who spent much of the season pushing to acquire his kind of players and get rid of those he didn't like. Smith made one trade in early November, bringing in Steve Larmer and Nick Kypreos in a three-way deal that got rid of defenseman James Patrick and center Darren Turcotte, two players who didn't fit Keenan's style.
Keenan had been hinting -- sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly -- that changes had to be made to get the Rangers to the next level. Judging by Smith's history, Kennan probably didn't have to push too hard. The GM was aware he had to make some moves to give the Rangers a chance to win a championship.
"There were a number of things that had to be done," Smith said. "We felt that the playoffs were different, that a different type of team would win the playoffs, as opposed to who would win in the regular season.
"I believed in deadline deals, to change your team, to tweak it for the playoffs. I don't believe that the same team that wins in an 82-game schedule wins in a 16-win schedule."
Keenan coached the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Final in 1992 and pushed to bring Larmer, one of the key members of that team, to New York. As the trade deadline approached, there was one player who was truly the apple of Keenan's eye: Stephane Matteau, a big forward Chicago acquired from Calgary.
But Matteau wasn't going to come cheaply. Rangers forward Tony Amonte scored 35 and 33 goals in his first two NHL seasons but had not meshed with Keenan's system, scoring 16 goals in 72 games. He spent much of the 1993-94 season in the coach's doghouse, but Chicago GM Bob Pulford wanted him.
"Mike had his input for sure, no doubt about it," Smith said. "He said all year he wanted 'Matteau, Matteau, Matteau, Matteau.' But I couldn't trade Tony Amonte even for Matteau; that's what Pulford wanted. Mike didn't care, he would have traded Amonte straight up for Matteau.
"Finally I got [Pulford] to give me [forward Brian] Noonan and I gave up the rights to a Chicago-born kid [Matt Oates] who never played in the NHL, and the trade goes through. I didn't like the trade at the time, but it gave us some experienced, veteran guys that Keenan liked."
Matteau, a 24-year-old, was Keenan's kind of player: big (6-foor-4, 220 pounds), feisty, but skilled enough to play a top-six role. He was a second-round pick by the Flames in 1987 and was traded to Chicago in 1991-92. He scored 15 goals for the Blackhawks the following season and had 15 goals and 31 points in 65 games for the Blackhawks in 1993-94.
"I knew Keenan in Chicago. We lost the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh in 1992," Matteau said. "I know Tony Amonte was the big prize for the Rangers at the time, but Keenan knew what type of players me and Brian Noonan were, and they paid a big price, but in the end, it benefited the Rangers at the time. It worked perfectly for both teams."
Noonan was Matteau lite. He was a little older (28), a little smaller (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and didn't have as good a pedigree (he was a ninth-round pick by Chicago in the 1983 NHL Draft). But he was the same kind of player as Matteau, with a mix of size and skill who had a history with Keenan and owned the kind of grit his old/new coach was looking for. He came to New York with 14 goals and a career-best 35 points.
Keenan may have wanted Matteau badly, but when Matteau learned about the trade, he remembered feeling he was going to have a tough time getting a chance to play.
"At first I was surprised because the Rangers were in first place," he said. "When I played for the Blackhawks, we had just played the Rangers before I got traded. They looked to me like the best team at the time, and I didn't think they needed to make changes. When I first heard I was being traded to New York, I said, 'Oh my God, I'm just going to be a spare player, I'll be on the fifth line, just waiting in case someone gets hurt.' I was very surprised to get traded to the Rangers."
Next on Smith's shopping list was a checking center who could win faceoffs, something the Rangers lacked for much of the season, especially with regulars Sergei Nemchinov and Mike Hudson sitting out suspensions as the deadline neared.
Smith knew who he wanted and was on the case for a few months.
"I'd been asking [Edmonton Oilers general manager] Glen Sather since Christmas to trade me Craig MacTavish because I knew they were going to miss the playoffs," Smith said. "We didn't have natural centers on our team; Esa Tikkanen was a center most of the year, and other guys were playing center. We weren't good up the middle. MacTavish was one of those guys who could play on the third line and kill penalties, win faceoffs, do all that stuff. Mike hadn't mentioned him; he didn't know Mac-T that well."
MacTavish played with Messier, Graves and other Rangers who came to New York from Edmonton. But the dynasty days of the Oilers were long gone; they were on their way to a last-place finish in the Pacific Division,
Smith finally got his man. Sather got Todd Marchant, a speedy center who wound up playing more than 1,100 NHL games, although he wasn't the player Sather thought he was getting.
"This is a funny story: I'd been bugging Glen all year, and at the deadline he finally said, 'Give me [Eric] Cairns,'" Smith said. "I said I couldn't do that because at the time we thought he was going to be a pretty good player, a big defenseman, which he ended up being with the Islanders. I said I'll give you Todd Marchant; he played for the U.S. National Team. He's got speed, he's got this, he's got that. So he calls me back and says he'll do it for Marchant.
"So we trade Marchant, we get MacTavish, and we go forward. I get a call from Sather, and he says to me, 'Smitty, you [bleeped] me on this deal. This guy's supposed to be 6-foot-1. He's 5-foot-8. I said, 'What are you talking about? I never said that? Where did you see that?' He said, 'Right in the [media] guide. I said, 'You're looking at the wrong Marchant. That's his brother.' He had a brother who'd been playing and [Sather] was reading all this stuff about the brother. As it turned out, Todd Marchant was a great pickup, but it was hilarious because he thought he was getting a 6-foot-1 guy and he got a 5-foot-8 guy."
MacTavish, now general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, said he wasn't surprised by being traded, though the destination was a bit of a shock.
"Sather asked me where I'd like to go and I said Detroit, because at that point they had the best chance to win," MacTavish said. "Glen knew more; he sent me to New York."
But the biggest stunner was yet to come.
It was no secret Gartner wasn't Keenan's favorite player. Gartner's strong points were speed and skill; Keenan felt Gartner didn't bring enough grit.
In addition, Gartner had never been able to come close to matching his regular-season achievements in the playoffs. Though Gartner scored 40 or more goals nine times, including each of his first three full seasons in New York, he had 30 goals in 81 playoff games.
Gartner was a proven star, a hard worker who did everything he was asked, and Smith wasn't eager to trade him. The GM finally acquiesced, almost literally at the last minute.
"Mike didn't like Gartner," Smith said. "That killed me because I liked Gartner, and I knew the fans liked Gartner. I was talking to [Toronto GM] Cliff Fletcher, and I think this happened right at the deadline; I don't think there had been any previous conversations. I said to him that [Glenn] Anderson's contract is up at the end of the year and Gartner's got another year. Gartner's from Toronto, and we both need to make a change. Would you trade me Anderson for Gartner? He said yes, and we did it; it was that quick."
In his prime, Anderson was every bit as dangerous a goal-scorer as Gartner and was a member of all five of the Oilers' championship teams. He had two 54-goal seasons; Gartner reached 50 goals once. Though he was approaching 35, Gartner was still one of the NHL's fastest skaters and didn't appear to have lost a step. Anderson hadn't scored more than 38 goals in six years.
But he had the kind of playoff experience Smith and Keenan craved, so the deal was done.
"I shipped Phil Bourque to Ottawa and [Andersson] to Florida just because we had too many players," Smith said.
Keenan told the media afterward the trades were a group effort.
"I thought Neil did a fabulous job," Kennan said. "Neil brought four players who will all play for the hockey club. Only two of the four we lost would have played a significant role. We really improved our depth, which is critical in the playoffs."
To say the makeover was stunning would be putting it mildly. Teams who've been atop the NHL standings don't go tearing apart their rosters with 12 games remaining. But the Rangers did; in fact, they were the first team in 13 years to make five trades at the deadline.
"The one thing you learn as a hockey player is that nothing surprises you," said defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, now an assistant coach with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers' top farm team. "There's always something that happens where you say, 'I didn't see that coming.' I think the coaching staff and Neil made the distinction as to what we needed to win going forward. They had a game plan and followed it through, and we traded some great players: Mike Gartner is a Hall of Famer, and Tony Amonte, who went to Chicago for Matteau and Noonan, scored something like 400 goals (416).
"Those trades weren't made for the [long-term] future as much as for the immediate future. Because of that, we were built to win then and now. When you try to seize opportunities, it doesn't always work, but it did work for us."
In contrast, backup goaltender Glenn Healy remembers being stunned by the makeover.
"We had dominated teams for most of the season," said Healy, now an analyst for CBC, "and even then, when we got to the trade deadline, we still made about six or seven trades. It's kind of incredible when you look back on it. We were the best team in the NHL when we made all those trades. We were No. 1."
The remodeled Rangers convened the following day in Calgary for a five-game trip that would take them through Western Canada before stops in Winnipeg and Philadelphia. Healy remembers the oddity of heading to the Saddledome for the first practice after the trades had been made.
"It was in Calgary; we had a practice that day. I recall practicing and the bus was empty because we had traded so many guys," he said. "We all joked and said to each other, 'Wow, they really loved this group, didn't they?' You looked at your team. You assessed it. They saw things you needed and they addressed those weaknesses."
The Saddledome had never been an enjoyable stop for the Rangers, but Anderson had some happier memories of Calgary from his time in Edmonton and wasted little time showing his scoring talent hadn't disappeared. He tied the game 1-1 with a power-play goal 8:03 into the first period and scored again at 15:25 of the second to put the Rangers ahead 3-2.
But the Pacific Division-leading Flames, who had beaten the Rangers soundly in New York two months earlier, looked like they would do it again when Robert Reichel scored with a little more than 12 minutes left in regulation to tie the score and Zarley Zalapski put Calgary ahead with 4:15 remaining.
It seemed like a lost night for the Rangers, until the player Keenan had to have showed why the coach wanted him so badly. With Richter on the bench for an extra attacker, Matteau shoved a shot past Mike Vernon with 14 seconds remaining to get the Rangers even at 4-4. Five scoreless minutes of overtime later, the visitors had a tie that felt as good as any victory all season.
Being a hero in his first game helped ease Matteau's transition.
"We were down a goal in Calgary and we pulled the goalie," he said. "Coach Keenan sent me on to the ice and I scored, so that was a pretty good debut for me and the Rangers. It made me feel a little more at home. I scored the next night too, against the Oilers in Edmonton. After that, I was pretty much set on the team."
To say Smith was relieved would be putting it mildly.
"We played Calgary and of course Matteau gets the tying goal in the last minute against the team that originally drafted him," he said. "It was a good omen, I guess. You breathe easy for one night and go on to the next game."
Not that Smith didn't take some heat for playing "Let's Make a Deal" with a team that was already on top of the NHL.
"We had 12 games to go when we made those trades. We ended really strong going down the stretch (8-2-2). But after the deadline, people thought that I had lost my mind; they were saying, 'What's he doing messing up a good team?' It's one of those things where you say, "I have to do this. This is the best thing to do, but if something goes wrong I could get fired over this.' You just put your faith in yourself."
The win-now Rangers finished first in the regular-season standings and blew through the Islanders and Washington Capitals in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, setting up a meeting with the Devils in the Eastern Conference Final.
Matteau became the hero of that series when he scored two double-overtime goals; the second, in Game 7, moved the Rangers into the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks.
Anderson, who scored once through the first three rounds, had back-to-back winning goals in Games 2 and 3. MacTavish assisted on the winning goal in Game 4, and Noonan had an assist on Messier's second-period goal in Game 7 that proved to be the Cup-winner.
"Each player that came in played a critical role in us winning," Healy said. "Good on Neil, good on Mike for recognizing what we needed to close the deal.
"Noonan was great. Larmer was great. Getting Craig MacTavish to take draws, to be the leader that he was. The experience that was brought in was invaluable. For a while you looked at Glenn Anderson on Messier's line and you'd say, 'Is this really working?' And then he scored two game-winning goals in the Final. It worked. He went a long time without scoring while playing with [Messier], but they stuck with the program, and the program turned out to pay dividends."
Smith knew he wasn't building the type of dynasty the Islanders had a decade earlier. That wasn't his mission, and he knew giving up players like Amonte wouldn't help in the long run.
"I wouldn't trade that experience for anything in the world," Smith said. "We paid for it later, and I knew we'd have to pay for it later.
"I had to use up every single bit of currency to get that team positioned the way it was. But the trades at the deadline, all of them worked 100 percent. You'd think that wouldn't happen."