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Rangers' parade was a celebration of fans

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
PHOTO GALLERY: Rangers' Stanley Cup Parade

By Dan David,

Mike Keenan was only three days removed from having coached the Rangers to the 1994 Stanley Cup championship when he addressed Blueshirts fans as part of the Canyon of Heroes celebratory parade.

"We're indebted to you," Keenan told the more than one million people who showed up for the parade that put a lid on the 54-year Cup drought that had preceded the Cup victory.
"We'll always remember this day forever."

More than 1 million people turned out in support of the Rangers on June 17, 1994, for a hockey celebration unlike any other.
Fifteen years later -- 15 years to the day, in fact -- the parade held on June 17, 1994, still stands out in the memories of the Rangers players who experienced it.

"It’s probably one of my favorite memories," said Adam Graves, whose No. 9 was retired this past season. " You would think that your attention would be focused on the ice, and things that happened on the ice, but for me anyway, it was the parade. I can remember taking the Metro North down from White Plains and being on that train, and of course, getting down to the Canyon of Heroes and getting on the float. And then going from block to block and seeing how deep and how many Rangers fans were there. The energy, the excitement and the ticker-tape. It was overwhelming. It’s an experience that is really hard to describe. A unique and unbelievably powerful experience."

It was a hot, hot Friday on June 17, 1994, as the temperature reached 89 degrees before the official start of summer the following week. Rangers fans, who had waited for generations to see their favorite sports team celebrated in this unique New York tradition, sweated through their jerseys rather than take them off amid chants of "We Own the Cup, We Own the Cup."

The 1994 Rangers were the first New York sports team since the 1986 Mets to reach the Canyon of Heroes, and the estimated crowd of 1.5 million wasn't so far away from the estimated 2.2 million drawn by the Mets in their equally remarkable season. Not bad for a hockey team when compared to baseball, but all of New York had been hungry for a parade of this nature.

Between the Mets' celebration in 1986 and the Rangers' in 1994, there were three parades in the Canyon of Heroes. The first honored South Africa's Nelson Mandela in June 1990, while the two others were held for veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the Korean War.

The Rangers hadn't come through a war, but to their fans, they had certainly endured a hard-fought battle, and the outpouring of emotion 15 years ago was almost immeasurable. The players themselves were used to seeing 18,200 fans in the stands at Madison Square Garden, but the site of more than a million came as an utter shock.

"We were on one of the first floats, and we heard this noise," said Brian Leetch, the 1994 playoff MVP whose float included the Stanley Cup. "We didn’t know what it was at first, but it was the roar of the crowd. They had been waiting and they could see the parade starting and the floats coming down. And we couldn’t tell what it was. We thought it was a plane or truck engines or they were doing something. It was until we got up into it and it just kept coming, wave after wave of cheering. It just was an amazing thing. It’s hard to explain it to anyone. I’m sure that even in my head it’s dimmed from the actual reality of it, because it was such an amazing thing."

The parade through lower Broadway and the Financial District featured a shower of shredded 1990s-style computer paper. It culminated with a visit to City Hall, where first-year Mayor Rudy Giuliani presented Leetch with the key to the city and congratulated all of the Rangers for breaking the 54-year "Curse".

Many of the fans brought homemade Stanley Cups, pieced together with plastic-ware and duct tape. The scene was even greater than one goaltender Mike Richter had imagined it might be after watching video of the 1986 Mets parade.

"We knew we were going to this parade, and we were gratified that they were going to have it, but we had no idea it was going to be that big," said Richter. "At the start of that year, Mike Keenan and (assistant coach) Colin Campbell had shown us clips of the parade years before to show us what Canyon of Heroes would look like if there was a parade in New York. They would show us and show us the Stanley Cup and then show images of that parade in New York. That was the closest we could come to envisioning what that parade would look like. But you turn that corner on the Canyon of Heroes, and everyone’s hair just stood on end. It was incredible."

Leetch remembers people standing six or seven deep from the curb as the floats came past. Richter remembers a feeling of amazement as he took in this sea of humanity.  Nothing in his season had prepared him for a moment like this.

"You’re in this kind of a little cave when you’re playing," said Richter. "You do it on purpose. You’re preparing yourself for the games, you’re eating the same thing, you’re hanging out with other players. What you read, what you eat, what you think, it’s all discipline. The only way you do anything is if it’s going to promote your agenda of getting yourself ready for the next game. And then all of a sudden you win that game, and it’s over, and the whole summer opens up."

Leetch, Richter and Graves were all on the first float, along with captain Mark Messier and alternate captain Steve Larmer. Leetch held the Cup up for fans all around to see.

"Even as great as I remember it and talk about it, and as great as it could sound, to go back and do it again, it would be even better than what I’m saying," said Leetch. "It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever been in, and it went by like that. It was so quick. I’ve heard Mike say that anyone who was in that parade would have liked to go around the block and start it over. I could have kept doing that all day long."

Graves said the parade was the best possible ending to a dream season for New York and its hockey fans.

"It was overwhelming," he said. "Certainly, it seemed to go on forever, which was fantastic. For me it was the going from block to block and seeing how deep on each block the people were. I’ll never forget the energy that whole spring, which culminated with the parade. It was incredible."

In a strange twist of history, jubilant fans coming home from the parade that night turned on their televisions to see a bizarre slow-speed chase involving football Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson, the Los Angeles Police Department, and a white Ford Bronco. For most people who didn't follow hockey, that image will be the most enduring one from June 17, 1994, but for Rangers fans, even Simpson's famous Bronco chase pales in their memories to what happened earlier than day, when the Rangers became the first -- and only -- hockey team ever honored with a parade through New York's Canyon of Heroes.
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