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Cup year was redemption for rough 1992-93

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
By Dan David,

When the waiting was over, and the New York Rangers had ended their 54-year Stanley Cup drought on June 14, 1994, at least one Blueshirts fan had to be feeling a sense of remorse.

He was a former season subscriber, presumably watching the game on television rather than the seat he has occupied for 15 seasons at The Garden. That’s because, just one year earlier, he had relinquished his season subscription amid the frustration he felt over the Rangers’ performance in 1992-93. Sixteen years later, we know his story, because he documented it in a 1993 letter to Blueshirt Bulletin, an independent monthly newspaper that covers the team.

Phil Bourque came to the Rangers in 1992 expecting to win a championship the following year. It turned out his prediction was off by one season.
"After 15 years of being a season-ticket holder in the blue seats, I called it quits on the Rangers,” he wrote. “ I've seen some bad Rangers teams over the years, but I was disgusted with the way this team quit on us. It won't be better next year. ... I hope I live long enough to see the Rangers win it just once."

This guy was hardly alone in the wake of the 1992-93 season. Even members of the New York media, such as the Post’s Mark Everson, believed the Rangers were moving in the wrong direction. In a column written in April 1993, Everson wrote that “stability, that elusive quality for this team, will continue to evade the Rangers -- as will the Stanley Cup.”

Now, amid the 15th anniversary celebration of a championship season, it seems almost ludicrous that within one year of watching their team win the Stanley Cup, some Rangers fans and local reporters were throwing in the towel, but the spring and summer of 1993 really were a unique time in Rangers history. That’s because 1992-93 – the one that preceded the Cup year -- was arguably the team’s most disappointing season ever.

It was a “Murphy’s Law” season. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. There were countless injuries, philosophical differences that led to the dismissal of a Hall of Fame coach, and a growing sense of underachievement that bred a palpable unrest among the fan base.

Rick Resnick, former publisher of Blueshirt Bulletin, referred to 1992-93 as a “wasted season” and had scathing words for the team in a year-ending article titled “Goodbye, Good Riddance.”

"With the Rangers now separated 53 years from their last Stanley Cup, the fans seemed more angry than at any other time in recent memory," he wrote.

It was the final season of the old Patrick Division – which was renamed the Atlantic Division in 1993 – and the Rangers finished in last place at 34-39-11, missing the playoffs by eight points. Both the Islanders and Devils came in ahead of them, causing even more anguish for Rangers fans, who were bombarded with the “1940” chants in schools and workplaces as a reminder of the team’s last Stanley  Cup championship year.

Only five other NHL teams had fewer points than the Rangers in 1992-93, and two were the expansion Lightning and Senators. Finishing last in the Patrick was rough enough, but the way the Rangers did it was even more painful -- losing seven straight games to end the season. The last dozen games saw the Rangers go 1-11-0.

They were shut out twice in that 1-for-12 stretch and lost one brutal home game to the Penguins, 10-4, which stirred memories of an even more embarrassing blowout by a struggling Buffalo team back on New Year’s Eve.  During the final minutes of the April 9 Pittsburgh game, the Garden Faithful serenaded their own players with the infamous “Goodbye” song, typically reserved for visiting teams, even though the Rangers were still technically in playoff contention.

Adam Graves, the MVP of the 1992-93 Rangers, had a breakout season, but he probably wasn't feeling too great when this picture was taken during the team's regular-season home finale, where fans weren't afraid to boo the entire team.
The last seven games played at MSG were all losses for the 1992-93 Rangers, tying a team record for the longest home losing streak. On April 12, with two games remaining in the regular season, the Blueshirts were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in a 1-0 defeat at Philadelphia.  That night, they became the first team since the 1947-48 Montreal Canadiens to miss the playoffs after finishing atop the league in the previous regular season.

Two nights later, on April 14, 1993, they played the final home game against Washington. It marked the first time in 16 years that the Rangers took part in a “meaningless” game at The Garden, and the natives grew even more restless as they watched the Rangers lose 2-0.

Resnick wrote a vivid description of that regular-season home finale. The game began with cheers for Adam Graves, who was presented with the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, but it was all downhill from there.

The Capitals didn’t score the game’s first goal until the third period, but the half-empty building had already turned on the home team – raining boos down on the Rangers and chanting “1940, 19-40” and “Last Place, Last Place” to mock them further.

No one was exempt from catcalls that night. Even captain Mark Messier, remembered best today as the man who delivered the Stanley Cup to MSG, was targeted by fans on April 14, 1993. Despite an impressive 91-point season to lead the team in scoring, Messier was a scapegoat that night for a season that spelled nothing but turmoil and kept him out of the playoffs for the first time in his NHL career.

One fan, in a letter to Blueshirt Bulletin, called Messier a “player whose reputation was clearly larger than his heart”, but Graves today insists that the criticism Messier endured, particularly for openly criticizing head coach Roger Neilson, was undeserved. Named team MVP for 1992-93, Graves is convinced Messier’s actions that season actually set the stage for 1994.

“I think we all grew. I really do. Regardless of the outcome of that year, it takes great leadership in good times and in bad times,” said Graves. “And sometimes it takes good leadership to stand up for what you believe in, even when it's not the most popular thing. And I think that's a good indication with Mark. It might not have been the most popular stance, but it was in his heart and he believed it.”

Regardless of the bigger picture, at least in April 1993, the idea that a Stanley Cup championship year would emerge from the ashes of the previous season’s debacle seemed crazy. Since divisional play had begun in 1967, no NHL team had ever won the Cupone year after finishing last in a division (the Rangers would become the first and only team to do it).  In many ways, the most historic aspect of the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup championship was not the fact that it ended 54 years of frustration, but rather than it unfolded in the wake of an unprecedented debacle.

What exactly happened to the 1992-93 Rangers? The previous season, they had won the 1991-92 Presidents’ Trophy by leading the league with 105 points – seven more than the next closest team. Messier had won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, and Brian Leetch took home the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.

Fans’ expectations in 1991-92 -- sky-high after Messier arrive in a high-profile October 1991 trade with Edmonton – were met in spades during the regular season. Even a first-round playoff exit at the hands of defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh was understandable, given the quality of their opponent and the presence of Mario Lemieux, who went on to lead his team to another Stanley Cup.

As soon as that brief Rangers 1992 playoff run ended, the focus had immediately turned to 1992-93, because the team appeared to have all the elements in place for a championship.

Phil Bourque, coming off two Stanley Cup victories with the Penguins, was so convinced that the Rangers were going to end his team’s dynasty that he signed with the Blueshirts in late August 1992. Asked why he was signing with the Rangers, the unrestricted free agent Bourque said it was because he wanted to win a third straight Cup.

Major injuries to star defenseman Brian Leetch set the tone for a trying season.
Rangers veterans were also thinking about the ultimate prize during the 1992 off-season.  Leetch and goaltender Mike Richter both recall taking a walk together in Manhattan and trying to envision what it would mean to the city if they could win the Cup there.

“We were walking around and we just said can you imagine winning it in this city? Our team was getting better, and we were heading in that direction, and we saw the possibilities of our team getting there,” said Leetch. “We’d win one playoff series or just be in the playoffs and we’d see how excited everybody was. So our thought pattern was to get to that point would be something else.”

The cover of the 1992-93 Hockey News Yearbook, accompanied by a picture of Messier in action, seemed to say it all: “Hi-Ho Silver – The Lone Rangers aim for Stanley Cup.” An Oct. 16, 1992, edition of The Hockey News rated the Rangers as the No. 1 team in the Wales Conference. Montreal, the team that would go on to win the Cup that year, was ranked third.

The Rangers had come back from their Presidents’ Trophy-winning 1991-92 season with the roster virtually intact, although that was almost not the case.

During the summer of 1992, the Blueshirts tried to make one of the biggest trades in hockey history at the NHL Entry Draft -- an all-out bid to land potential superstar Eric Lindros. The Quebec Nordiques held the rights to Lindros, having drafted him No. 1 overall the previous year. Lindros, however, demanded a trade, leading up to the drama of June 30, 1992, when Quebec made two separate deals -- one with the Flyers and one with the Rangers.

In the end, the Flyers got Lindros because NHL officials ruled the Quebec-Philadelphia deal had been completed first. The Rangers’ deal, which Quebec appeared to prefer based on their subsequent lobbying with the league, reportedly included goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck and forwards Tony Amonte, Alexei Kovalev and Doug Weight.

Even if these players were not part of the proposed trade, the publication of their names sent a message that their futures in New York might not be so secure. Vanbiesbrouck’s situation was particularly significant, since he was now sharing netminding duties with a young Richter. The two-goalie system was not ideal, and its continuance into 1992-93 left an open question as to who was the real No. 1.

Not yet the Rangers' No. 1 goalie, Mike Richter played 38 games in 1992-93, finishing the season with just 13 wins.
Another question concerned the late Neilson, who passed away in 2003, just one year after entering the Hockey Hall of Fame. Neilson had coached the Rangers to the 1991-92 Presidents’ Trophy, but in the process had philosophical disagreements with Messier.

Neilson and Messier had differing visions of what it would take to bring the Stanley Cup to New York. Messier went public with his concerns, and the local media was eating up the “controversy” even before the 1992-93 season started.

Neilson would last only 40 of the season’s 84 games before Rangers President and General Manager Neil Smith made a coaching change. The Blueshirts were 19-17-4 under Neilson when Smith relieved the head coach of his duties on Jan. 4, 1993, and replaced him with Ron Smith on an interim basis.

Ron Smith came up to the Rangers from the team’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., but by the time he arrived it was too late, and a collapse was already in motion. When Neilson left, the Rangers were clinging to third place -- and a potential playoff spot. In their 44 games under Smith, they went 15-22-7, falling out of the playoff race and into last place in the Patrick Division.

It was hardly Ron Smith’s fault. The interim coach inherited a locker room shaken by the removal of a coach who had led them to the league’s best record less than a year earlier. Things got so bad for the Ron Smith that at one point – following a 3-2 loss to Quebec on March 28 at MSG – he came into a postgame press conference and stood in the back of the room rather than at his usual spot.

"Why don't I just stand back here and ask the questions,” he reportedly said to the media. “I don't have any more answers than you do."

Neil Smith was even more emphatic when talking to reporters near the end of the season:

"The minute this season ends, the scaffold is going up," he said. "… It's no secret what this organization expects and, obviously, we didn't perform up to our expectations -- let alone anyone else's. Therefore, there will be the appropriate adjustments and changes made so we can live up to those expectations."

With Mark Messier sidelined for several games in 1992-93, veteran winger Mike Gartner found himself wearing the captain's "C" on occasion.
The other major problem in 1992-93 was not something the Blueshirts could control. Injuries, particularly the prolonged absence of Leetch, played a big part in the team’s stunning descent.

Coming off the first of his two Norris Trophy seasons, Leetch missed 48 of 84 games in 1992-93. The major injury occurred during a Dec. 17, 1992, game at St. Louis, when he missed a check on the Blues’ Philippe Bozon and fell into the boards.  In the process, he stretched and compressed a nerve that started in neck and traveled through his shoulder into arm. It cost him the next 34 games – during which time the Rangers were only 12-14-8.

Leetch would return from the devastating neck injury on March 9, 1993, to play in the Rangers’ game against Los Angeles at MSG, but his season ended abruptly 10 days later – with 13 games remaining in the season. Late in the evening of March 19, 1993, shortly after a big 8-1 home win over the hapless Sharks, Leetch slipped on a patch of ice outside his Manhattan apartment and broke his right ankle. The Rangers went 2-11-0 over the final 13 games without him.

With a healthy Leetch, the 1992-93 Rangers were a healthy 20-13-3 – a pace that would easily have put them in the playoffs. With Leetch injured, the Blueshirts were 14-26-8. That statistic demonstrated Leetch’s value to the team, just as his remarkable efforts in the 1993-94 season and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance in the 1994 Stanley Cup run made it clear that the Rangers needed him at his best to reach the top.

Leetch wasn’t the only player facing injuries in 1992-93. The team also lost Messier for nine games due to injuries, Darren Turcotte for 13 games because of a broken foot, and James Patrick for the season’s final 10 games with a herniated disc in his back. Other short-term injuries came as a result of terrible luck --  Bourque, Jay Wells, Mike Hurlbut and Kevin Lowe all missed action after colliding with teammates in practice.

The unspoken fallout from the unsuccessful Lindros trade, questions surrounding goaltending and coaching, injury woes and the sense of falling short of expectations all combined to make 1992-93 a trying year for the Rangers, but to the organization’s credit, the road back to glory began just as soon as the season ended with a 4-2 loss at Washington on April 16.

The most important move was made within 24 hours after the season ended, when Neil Smith announced that Mike Keenan would become the team’s new head coach on April 17, 1993.

"The timing of this announcement is to say to our fans that we're proactive and that we're doing something,” Smith said that day. “We're not going to let this happen again. The first second we possibly could, we're starting to address things."

Known for demanding excellence from his players, Keenan had been highly successful in eight seasons as an NHL head coach -- taking both Philadelphia and Chicago teams to the Stanley Cup Finals. He had no illusions about his new role with the Rangers.

"Coaching the New York Rangers is the most challenging job in hockey,” Keenan said at his first press conference. “… It provides for an opportunity as a coach to see if you can test your skills and abilities and achieve something that no one else has been able to achieve for a long time."

The second turning point came courtesy of NHL expansion. With Florida and Anaheim getting teams for 1993-94, an NHL Expansion Draft was set to take place on June 30, 1993. Teams could protect only one goaltender, so the Blueshirts were forced to choose between Richter and Vanbiesbrouck.

Neil Smith chose to keep the younger Richter, but rather than lose Vanbiesbrouck for nothing, he alertly traded him to Vancouver for defenseman Doug Lidster, who would help the Rangers win the Cup one year later against his former Canucks teammates. Vancouver was willing to trade Lidster because it needed to expose Vanbiesbrouck to the expansion draft to avoid breaking up an excellent goaltending tandem in Kirk McLean and Kay Whitmore, a popular backup who was a great salary bargain.

Ten days before the expansion draft, Vanbiesbrouck was sent to Vancouver for future considerations, which became Lidster on June 24. That opened the door for Richter as the first clear No. 1 goalie at The Garden since ”The Beezer” had held that status four years earlier.

To replace Vanbiesbrouck, the Rangers backup Glenn Healy from the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they also added free agent Greg Gilbert, a four-time Stanley Cup finalist and two-time champion, over the summer. Other than that, however, there weren’t many personnel moves before the puck dropped to start the 1993-94 season.

Perhaps the most fundamental change that took place in the 1993 off-season involved the overall mindset of a team determined to atone for its mistakes the previous year.

Messier came to embody that commitment, and his leadership over the next 12 months would make it hard to believe he had ever been a focal point for blame in 1992-93.  But it wasn’t only Messier. All of the Rangers were convinced that 1992-93 was really not indicative of the future, and would have been the first ones to advise the Garden Faithful to keep the faith.

“We knew it would be better than the year before,” said Leetch. “I got injured there a couple of times and the team was having different struggles internally, and yet we believed we were a good team and capable of winning a lot of games, so that was a definite disappointment – that (1992-93) season.”

The disappointment, however, proved to be well worth it when the Rangers went all the way the following year – evidence of just how much can be learned from adversity and the wonderful aspect of sports that gives each team and athlete an opportunity to redeem themselves on an annual basis.

“You’d hear about the jinxes or the different things like injuries or something happening, and therefore the 54 years and the 1940 chant really carried weight,” said Graves. “That’s why in so many ways it was just a great thrill to be a part of it (1994). To actually get to that point, where Mark was going to center ice (to get the Cup) … Those things are cemented in your memory.”
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