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1994 Championship Memories: Iron Mike

by Michael Obernauer / New York Rangers 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.


Despite what you may have heard, there is in fact a soft side to Mike Keenan. It is unmistakable when he speaks of how much he is looking forward to seeing his title-winning team together again at Madison Square Garden.

"I'm looking forward to seeing my players - I've seen some of them since the Cup, but not all of them," Keenan said. "I want to see them and see how they're doing and see how their families have grown. That's the thing. That's what I'm really looking forward to."

Keenan, who arrived at the Garden in the spring of 1993 preceded by his reputation for sternness and success as an NHL head coach, will return on Friday night to be celebrated as the guiding hand (fist?) of the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion Rangers. It is a group that achieved their greatest triumph together 25 years ago, who will throw a silver anniversary party back home at on Broadway on Friday night, and who Keenan can't wait to be reunited with.

Maybe, though, the evidence of a milder manner has been there all along, because Keenan, in an interview with talking over memories of his team's run to a title that transfixed New York, recalled the moment 25 years ago when the man they call Iron Mike says he felt fully primed for the biggest hockey game of his life, Rangers vs. Canucks on June 14, 1994.

"My confidence in Game 7 was extremely high," Keenan said, "and I'll tell you, here's what I remember. I can remember going into the arena, driving in from Greenwich, and a song came on the radio by Mary Chapin Carpenter. It goes: 'I take my chances every chance I get.'

"And I said, 'Yeah. Right on. Isn't this something? It's a beautiful day and we get to play for the Cup today.'"

Maybe when most people think of Mike Keenan, their minds don't go straight to sunshine and easy listening. But there is no doubt that Keenan will forever be linked with New York, known as the bench boss who led the Broadway Blueshirts on one of the most captivating charges to a championship that the city has ever witnessed.

Keenan's coaching tenure in New York was quick as a flash, and just as intensely bright. It began on April 17, 1993, when he was named the 26th head coach in Rangers history, following stints in Chicago and Philadelphia in which he had reached the Stanley Cup Final three separate times. And it reached its culmination on June 14, 1994, with the drought-busting Stanley Cup championship on Broadway.

When he was hired, the Rangers were coming off two seasons in which they had won the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top regular-season team in 1991-92, then, hampered by an ankle injury to Leetch, flamed out in 1992-93 and finished last in the Patrick Division, with coach Roger Nielson taking the fall before the season was out.

"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," said the General Manager of those teams, Neil Smith. "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 either 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."

Smith wanted the new coach (and a new storyline) introduced quickly, and so the press conference was held the day after the '92-93 season concluded. But some might say Keenan only truly introduced himself to the Rangers eight games into his tenure, following his team's exasperating 4-2 Garden loss to the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, a Mickey Mouse team in the literal sense of the term. The Disney-owned franchise was playing the sixth game, and first on the road, of its existence.

Keenan had, among other things, benched Brian Leetch during the course of that loss, which dropped the Rangers to 4-4 to start a season that had come on the heels of the tailspin that finished the previous one.

The following morning, when the Rangers practiced at Rye Playland, you could say that Keenan set out to send a message.

"Yeah, that's correct," Keenan said, laughing at the understatement. "It was time for that and that's what I was looking to do. I could recall that I really, after that period of time, early in the season, I got their attention very quickly, and asked and demanded a lot more from them."

Five days after that, Esa Tikkanen scored a tiebreaking goal in the third period that gave the Rangers a 3-2 win over the Kings on Oct. 24, which marked two things: the end of a three-game losing streak, and the beginning of ad stretch of 14 games without a loss (12 wins, two ties). They would go the remainder of the calendar year without losing a game at the Garden, part of a year in which they would go 28-8-6 on home ice.

"Kevin Lowe said that was the hardest skate he ever had in his life," Keenan said, with more than a little pride, about the bag-skate practice. "But it got their attention and they responded well."

"That was an important 24 hours for our team," said Eddie Olczyk. "I'm not telling you it was fun, but going through that, losing that game and then that skate that followed it, I think in the end that went a long way to getting us turned around."

As turning points go, though, none that season, or probably ever in the team's history, was greater than the turnabout that occurred on May 25, 1994, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final in New Jersey. With the Devils leading 2-0 and threatening to run the Rangers out of the Meadowlands and out of their season, the Rangers were leaning on Mike Richter to keep them within reach of the game but still were in search of any kind of spark at the other end.

With still more than half the game to go, Keenan decided it was time to use his timeout. Not to relay instructions, or for any kind of speech or yelling and screaming. He never spoke a word.

"I wanted to change the momentum, and the timeout gave us a little bit of a relief, which we needed," Keenan said. "No, I didn't say a word, I never intended to. All I did was I looked at Mark, and gave him the opportunity to take charge. And he did.

"I think that was a shot of adrenaline for the team, and a reinforcement from Mark to the group. I thought anything I could say, it would be more powerful if it came from Mark rather than from me. Any talking there was, he did all the talking."

And what did Messier say?

"To paraphrase, he looked at the guys and said we can do this," Keenan said. "But let's not wait too much longer to get our act together."

Prior to joining the Rangers, Keenan had known Messier firsthand from coaching him in two Canada Cups and also against him in the NHL, including in the Stanley Cup Final in 1985 and '87 and the Campbell Conference final in 1990 - all won by Messier's Oilers. The opportunity to coach a team led by Messier for more than just a summertime Canada Cup was a huge appeal luring Keenan to New York.

"I had some options, but I really embraced the idea of having Mess in particular," Keenan said. "And then we had other superstars like Brian Leetch and Mike Richter - goaltending is so critical - and then the challenge of coaching a team in New York was formidable, but I was ready for it, and wanted it.

"I knew about (Messier's) ability after coaching him, and I knew what his contribution would be to the group, and to have him over the course of a season certainly is different than a short tournament. It was a great starting point for me."

Keenan and Messier won those Canada Cups together, in 1987 and 1991, and Keenan, who later in his career went on to coach a pair of teams in the Russian league, is the only coach to have won both the Stanley Cup and the Gagarin Cup, the championship of the KHL, which he captured with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2014.

Today, Keenan's outlook on life can't help but be altered by his prostate cancer diagnosis last year; Keenan reports that he had his most recent checkup last week, and a treatment called brachytherapy that he is undergoing, at a hospital in Toronto, that embeds slowly dissolving seeds that release radiation to attack the cancer, is showing results. Keenan is open to speaking of his treatment in the hopes that his own story will compel other people to seek regular checkups: His own early diagnosis greatly broadened his options for treatment.

"The radiation is killing the cancer," Keenan said, "and that's great."

And so this week, he can turn his full attention on Friday's celebration, where he'll be with his old charges again, in the rink where they won it all together.

"Just being part of it, and to be privileged to be part of it, and the celebration of the appreciation the fans gave our team," Keenan said. "They were so gracious when we won, the people of New York - the ticker-tape parade that we had, the millions that came out. It's going to be a very powerful experience again."

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