One for the ages
You can't buy a Stanley Cup.
There are no shortcuts to glory.
You can't claim destiny owes you a break or that a curse keeps you from winning the National Hockey League championship.
The Stanley Cup isn't three games and then the Super Bowl like in the NFL. It's not a best-of-seven World Series after a couple of playoff rounds. It's not an up-and-down the court scoring spree like in the NBA.
To win the Stanley Cup, a team has to fight through the intense checking and win all the little battles and answer the gut-check for nearly three months. Pay the price it takes to win for more than three months and 16 wins.
I've covered more than 30 Stanley Cup marathons -- none has been a fluke and many have been part of dynasties by the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers. Every one of them has been special, because the team that wins it all has earned it.
To me, no championship captured more drama than the improbable run of the New York Rangers in 1994, as they cast off the so-called curse and demons and won the first Cup title in team history since 1940.
Fifty-four years ... Since 1940, the Rangers had watched 11 different teams win the Stanley Cup. Five of those teams entered the League in 1967. They had failed under six team presidents before Neil Smith. They had 24 coaches before Mike Keenan. And they had played 4,150 games.
To prove how much time can sometimes be cruel, the names of Clint Smith and the 1940 Rangers were no longer on the Cup -- the ring that carried the names of those long-but-not-forgotten Rangers was one of the rings on the Cup that was removed to make room for new champions, new names, new traditions.
''When I first put on the Rangers' sweater, I knew I also took on that history, that tradition -- and 1940," captain Mark Messier told me in training camp that year, after Keenan put up pictures of the Stanley Cup all around the training site and inside the team's locker room at Madison Square Garden to remind each an every player that nothing short of winning it all was satisfactory.
"I did a few extra sit-ups the day I heard Mike Keenan was going to be our coach," goltender Mike Richter told me in training camp that year as he expected to be confronted by the hard-driving style of the team's new coach.
''I had won five Stanley Cups before this,'' a jubilant Messier confided to me in a champagne-filled locker room after the Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in Game 7 of the Finals. ''But I've never experienced anything like that last two months.
''I thought I had seen it all, but this was absolutely incredible.''
Messier, this wonderful warrior had to pause to choke off the tears of joy before he continued:
"The thing about coming here and winning the Cup was all the things that happened to the Rangers -- and I wanted to stress the positives, not Brad Park's knee injury in 1971 or Jean Ratelle's broken leg in 1972 or John Davidson playing through a knee injury in the 1979 Finals. All of those hurdles the fans and players had to go through.''
That icy glare that causes opponents to shiver in peril has now taken over in this passionate conversation:
''People talked about curses and ghosts and goblins. ... When I won in Edmonton, we were kids. We didn't have history or anything to fall back on. In New York, it was 54 years of frustration. The toughest challenge in professional sports was to come here and try to win a championship."
While traveling cross country from Vancouver to Montreal to New York for Game 7, I ran into Canadiens goaltender Patrick Roy at Dorval Airport in Montreal and he offered an interesting parallel to the Canadiens' championship one year earlier, saying: ''You don't just snap your fingers and have a championship team. It's hard work, it takes a mental toughness beyond any you've felt before. Last year we needed someone to come in and mold our team into a winner. That was Jacques Demers ... and Mike Keenan is doing that for the Rangers.''