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1994 Championship Memories: Big Deal Neil

by Michael Obernauer / NYRangers.com

NYRangers.com is getting ready to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion Rangers, and to welcome back the players and coaches and staff for a one-of-a-kind celebration on Feb. 8 at the Garden. We'll be looking back at a few of the memorable moments and characters that made the joy of this championship season one that will last a lifetime.

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One of the most important acquisitions in the Rangers' assembly of the 1994 Stanley Cup Championship team came more than five years before the first Champagne cork was popped, when the team brought in the man who would lay the blueprint of a title winner - a 35-year-old out of the Red Wings organization named Neil Smith.

Smith was hired on July 17, 1989, to become the ninth General Manager of the Rangers, a title he would hold throughout the 1990s. Smith had cut his teeth with the Cup-winning Islanders in the early part of the decade, then built his stature working in Detroit's system in the mid- and late-'80s. Once he took command of the Rangers, his pursuit of a winner earned him the nickname "Big Deal Neil"; his acquisition of Mark Messier changed the course of the franchise forever, and his retooling of a first-place team on the day of the trade deadline in 1994 remains a signature day in Rangers history, for the boldness of the moves and for their discernible impact on the Rangers' playoff run in the spring of '94. Even though there was one trade on that day that Smith says he "hated."

"To win in New York, you better be proactive," Smith said in an interview with NYRangers.com. "And if you're not proactive, they're going to kick you out and get somebody who is. That's just the beat of New York."

In combing over how the 1994 Rangers were built, Smith himself stressed that you have to go back well before his arrival, when the first cornerstones were laid. NYRangers.com takes a look back at how Smith set about constructing the Stanley Cup Champions.

June 15, 1985
MIKE RICHTER
Drafted in 2nd Round, 28th overall

June 21, 1986
BRIAN LEETCH
Drafted in 1st Round, 9th overall

Neil Smith: "I got blessed by having two guys put in my lap that ended up being cornerstones of the team, and that's Leetch and Richter. So when I walked in the door they were already there. Pretty good thing to build around, a great goaltender and one of the best defensemen in the league, if not the best. So I already had those guys when I got there, and they were young, they were just starting out in their careers."

June 17, 1989
NEIL SMITH
Hired as General Manager

NS: "I learned a lot by observation, and I've got to say I learned a lot from Al Arbour and Bill Torrey, that was a tremendous start for me just to watch those guys and see how winners conduct themselves and what their expectations were. And then I went to Detroit - Jimmy Devellano took me to Detroit with him, and we started to do well there after a while of getting it set. I became the GM of the Adirondack Red Wings in 1985, and the coach there was Bill Dineen. (The two won the Calder Cup with Adirondack in 1986 and 1989.) Bill had won two Stanley Cups as a Detroit Red Wings player and two Avco Cups in the World Hockey Association.

"He wanted to win. I mean, he wanted to win, and would do whatever it took to win. And that taught me something too, that mentality of, Nothing's acceptable except winning. That rubbed off on me and I learned a lot from Bill.

"And then Jack Diller hired me for the Rangers, and at the time he got crucified for hiring a 35-year-old kid. Nobody knew me, I hadn't played in the NHL, and all of this. They went from Phil Esposito, the folk hero, to me. Everybody wanted to kill Jack Diller."

June 16, 1990
SERGEI ZUBOV
Drafted in 5th Round, 85th overall
(Draft choice acquired as compensation when Quebec signed Guy Lafleur three days before the Rangers hired Smith)

June 16, 1990
SERGEI NEMCHINOV
Drafted in 12th Round, 244th overall

NS: "Nemchinov was somebody that I wanted to take for Detroit the year before when I was chief scout, and they didn't want me to take him. So I waited and took him in New York."

March 5, 1991
JOEY KOCUR
Acquired from Detroit, with Per Djoos
for Kevin Miller, Jim Cummins and Dennis Vial

NS: "It was good to get Joey Kocur at that deadline. You needed that heavyweight guy. You couldn't let other teams intimidate you, so - in that era - you needed that heavyweight guy. Joey Kocur could be that role for us."

June 9, 1991
ALEXEI KOVALEV
Drafted in 1st Round, 15th overall

NS: "I was proud of Kovalev - without him we don't win either. And he was a gutsy pick, because he was the highest a Russian had ever been picked in the draft. No, I didn't have any hesitation to do it, because I'd been doing it in Detroit: we drafted in '89 those guys that ended up winning Cups, and two Hall of Famers in Lidstrom and Fedorov. I didn't hesitate on rolling the dice on things. And Alex, we do not win without him in New York. …

"I think of that story, in that famous game in New Jersey (Game 6 at Brendan Byrne Arena, where visiting executives sat in the press box that was set within the regular stands), they were winning 2-0, and there was this idiot in the stands next to me just yelling, over and over again, 'Hey Neil, back to the drawing board! Back to the drawing board!'

"So then Kovalev scores that goal and the place erupts, and then of course the famous stuff that goes on in the third period. And I swear to you, when Mess scores into the empty net, I turned to look at that guy, and the seat was empty. Gone. Kovalev quieted him right down, and then Mess sent him on his way."

Sept. 3, 1991
ADAM GRAVES
Signed as Group I free agent
Troy Mallette to Edmonton as compensation
(Oilers were denied in their request that the arbiter award Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk as compensation; the two players would be packaged in a separate deal to Edmonton one month later)

NS: "My favorite. I'm very, very proud of Adam Graves. Because Adam Graves, I drafted him for Detroit, I knew him and his dad, I believed in him. When I traded for him that year he was a heavy-duty minus on Edmonton in the '91 season, because he'd been played against all the top guys on the other teams. And he came in and became Mess' bodyguard, and scored those 52 goals. To me, that's such a great story. I go all the way back with him to the '86 Draft, and there we are on the ice with the Stanley Cup together. To me, it's a wonderful, wonderful story.

"When I got Graves for Mallette, I was talking to another GM, and I swear to you he said, 'Do you really think that Adam Graves is better than Troy Mallette?' I said, 'I know his character, and I know his dad, I drafted him for Detroit; Yes, I'm pretty confident in that.'"

Oct. 4, 1991
MARK MESSIER
Acquired from Edmonton
for Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk

NS: "Once you get Messier, everything changes."

Was it anything like a no-brainer at the time, as it is in retrospect?

NS: "No … no … Glen (Sather, then the Oilers GM, now the Rangers President) was known as a horse-trader, right? And Mess had been through the wars. I mean, every Canada Cup, he'd been in the Finals all those times, he'd been injured - there was a lot of things going on. So when I made the trade he had to come have a physical, that was part of the deal - he had it while we were playing in Boston that night in the opener of the season. The words from the doctor, Bart Nissenson, his exact words were: 'Oh, he's quite a specimen.'

"It's hard to believe now - one of our beat writers, he was writing for one of the Jersey papers, he ripped me for trading for Messier. He said, 'Here they go again, they're trading away their young guys for has-beens.' There were a lot of people who were very skeptical. And if the Messier thing doesn't work out, I'm fired for sure. There's no doubt in my mind."

When was did it become clear that he was the real deal?

NS: "It was clear from the time I picked him up from the airport. I'm not kidding. And then when I saw him skate in a Ranger uniform that first night in Montreal, I was like, 'Holy moly.' Because this guy, could he ever skate. Mess was like they skate today - he had the speed that the players have today, he had it back then. He was just a powerful man, game-breaking strides, and then there's all the legendary stuff about him with his teammates.

"He changed the culture of the organization, there's no doubt about that."

Nov. 12, 1991
JEFF BEUKEBOOM
Acquired from Edmonton for David Shaw to complete Messier trade

March 9, 1991
JAY WELLS
Acquired from Buffalo
for Randy Moller

Dec. 11, 1992
KEVIN LOWE
Acquired from Edmonton
for Roman Oksiuta and 1993 3rd-round draft choice

Dec. 28, 1992
EDDIE OLCZYK
Acquired from Winnipeg
for Kris King and Tie Domi

March 17, 1993
ESA TIKKANEN
Acquired from Edmonton
for Doug Weight

NS: "That was another building block of the team. Although it would be easy to criticize that trade in hindsight, without Tikkanen you don't win the Cup. There's no doubt about that. But I gave up a star again - two of our draft picks (Weight and later Tony Amonte) who turned into stars to win the Cup. That was the price you had to pay."

March 22, 1993
MIKE HARTMAN
Acquired from Tampa Bay
for Randy Gilhen

April 17, 1993
MIKE KEENAN
Hired as Head Coach

NS: "I just knew that we had to get a guy that had handled high-level players, because now we were breaking into high-level players, stars, which is something the Rangers really hadn't had a lot of. They'd had older stars, but not stars in their prime, and we had Leetch, Richter, Graves, Messier, Zubov if you want to say, and others. And I told ownership we need to get any of Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, or Mike Keenan. We've got to get one of those three. Al wasn't going anywhere, and Scotty was coaching in Pittsburgh, you're not getting him out of there. There was only one guy available who was at that level that I thought we needed, and that was Keenan. So that's what happened.

"No matter what I or anybody says about him, I got the right guy."

June 25, 1993
DOUG LIDSTER
Acquired from Vancouver
for John Vanbiesbrouck NS: "This is very fortuitous. We're going to lose a goalie in the Expansion Draft. So I traded Vanbiesbrouck to Vancouver for Doug Lidster, because what I said to (Canucks coach/GM) Pat Quinn was, expose Vanbiesbrouck, you won't lose Kirk McLean, or you won't lose the backup, Kay Whitmore, because you could only lose one goalie and I know for sure Roger (Neilson, the ex-Ranger coach and the Panthers' first-ever coach) and Florida are going to take Vanbiesbrouck. And I didn't want to lose him for just nothing from our team. So I ended up getting Lidster from Vancouver."

June 25, 1993
GLENN HEALY
Acquired from Tampa Bay
for 1993 3rd-round draft choice (returned to Tampa Bay)

NS: (Referring to his predecessor with the Rangers, Phil Esposito, then the first GM in Lightning history): "Espo calls me and says, 'I can get Healy (as part of the Expansion Draft), and if I get him just gimme back the third-round pick you got for me signing Rob Zamuner. So I said, 'Okay.'

"So now all of a sudden I've stolen the Islanders' starting goalie from the year before, and put him in behind Richter, which was as good a combination as having Vanbiesbrouck and Richter."

July 29, 1993
GREG GILBERT
Signed as free agent

Sept. 7, 1993
ALEXANDER KARPOVTSEV
Acquired from Quebec
for Mike Hurlbut

NS: "We go into '93-94, and there were some really fortuitous things that happened. I got a call from the Nordiques that they wanted Mike Hurlbut. They gave me a list of players I could have, and we said 'Okay, we'll take Karpovtsev.' Well, Karpovtsev came right in, played on our team, and was on the Stanley Cup. You know?"

Oct. 3, 1993
MIKE HUDSON
Claimed from Edmonton in NHL Waiver Draft

Nov. 2, 1993
STEVE LARMER and NICK KYPREOS
Acquired in three-team trade with Chicago and Hartford
with Barry Richter and 1994 6th-Round draft choice
for Darren Turcotte and James Patrick

NS: "I don't think Chicago wanted to trade (Larmer) directly to us, because of the Mike Keenan-Chicago thing. So they ended up trading him to Hartford, and Hartford before they got him said, 'If I get him, will you get him from me and what will you give me? So we worked that out with Paul Holmgren, and I got Steve Larmer, which was a huge, huge thing for us.

"I think (Chicago GM Bob) Pulford just didn't want to trade him to Mike - I don't know that for sure. But I could make a deal with Holmgren, because I could give him Patrick and Turcotte and he was happy with that, and he gave us Kypreos and Larmer, and we were very, very happy with that."

March 21, 1994
GLENN ANDERSON
Acquired from Toronto
with 1994 4th-Round draft choice
for Mike Gartner

NS: "I called Cliff Fletcher and said, 'Cliff, Gartner's got another year left on his contract, he's from Toronto. Glenn Anderson doesn't have any time left on his contract, and he's played with all these guys here (on the Rangers), so would you trade Anderson for Gartner?' Long story short, he did it, he said yes and we did it right there on that conversation. I think the only time we talked about it was on the day of the deadline, so we did it that quickly."

March 21, 1994
CRAIG MacTAVISH
Acquired from Edmonton
for Todd Marchant

NS: "We go into the deadline and I had already been talking to Sather about MacTavish, because they weren't going to make the playoffs, we were playing a winger at center ice, I needed a center I thought, and I thought we needed a guy that could take faceoffs and we needed our third line to be a little bit better. So I wanted MacTavish, I had wanted him for some time by then and I end up finally getting him from Edmonton late on the deadline day."

March 21, 1994
STEPHANE MATTEAU and BRIAN NOONAN
Acquired from Chicago
for Tony Amonte and rights to Matt Oates

NS: "Mike had been on my back all year about Amonte for Matteau, Amonte for Matteau, all year. And I was on Sather's back all year about MacTavish.

"Mike all season had wanted Matteau from Chicago because he'd just come from there. I said I'm not trading Amonte for Matteau. I wouldn't do that all year. Finally at the deadline I called Pulford and I worked it out so I could get Noonan and Matteau, and I said Okay I'll do it - because I knew I was trading away a future star. And so I hated the trade. Because my job's the future, right? When you're the GM your job is the future, and I knew that I was sacrificing future for present.

"I was given some different names from Pulford, and of course I was saying to Mike, 'What do you think of this guy, what do you think of that guy?' Because he had been there (in Chicago), I'd be stupid not to ask his advice on players that were on his team. And we got to Noonan, and that convinced me. It put me over the top that, okay, this was palatable for me - Matteau for Amonte directly was not palatable to me, I couldn't do that. And I was right - look at Amonte, he went on to be a star.

"The thing about it was, those guys bonded together extremely quickly. Two guys from Chicago, a guy from Edmonton and a guy from Toronto - or you could say two guys from Edmonton, in Anderson and MacTavish. But all these guys, they come in and it was like they didn't miss a beat. And on we went."

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