Midway through last season, the Rangers held a special pregame event for a group of season-ticket holders with a minimum of 30 years' tenure. Greeting these longtime subscribers that night were Rangers alumni representing teams from multiple eras. It was a festive event filled with great stories from both the fans and former Rangers players.
As the attendees formed autograph lines for the ex-Rangers, one subscriber who had held season tickets since the fall of 1971, pointed to a man greeting fans at a nearby table and matter-of-factly remarked:
"I'm here because of him. If he doesn't score that playoff goal, I don't know that I ever would have bought season tickets."
The ex-Ranger in question was Pete Stemkowski
, and the referenced goal was the triple-overtime winner in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals against Chicago on April 29, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.
More than three decades have passed since Stemkowski's legendary goal, and it might not ring a bell for many fans under the age of 45. For an entire generation of New York Baby Boomers, however, the shot heard 'round the city at 1:29 of the third overtime period still resonates in their ears. The moment was monumental enough to merit a spot in the top 20 of MSG's "The 50 Greatest Moments at Madison Square Garden" series.
MSG's "50 Greatest" countdown is really heating up, as the drive to No. 1 takes place over the program's next four episodes. The unveiling of moments 20 to 16 premieres Tuesday night on MSG at 9:30 p.m., immediately following the Rangers-Islanders game, and Stemkowski's goal figures prominently in the program. Rare footage of the goal will be shown, as well as exclusive interviews with Stemkowski and others who witnessed it.
Although honored to be in the top 20, Stemkowski said he never expected his goal to rank so high.
"If it was a Stanley Cup-winner or a series winner, I would think, yes, it should be up there, but for some reason the fans really seem to remember that," said Stemkowski. "And that's a big moment for them. When I do see them, they remind me of that and it's a special feeling."
Stemkowski's appearance in the MSG top 20 is a true testament to the magnitude of what he achieved so many years after the fact. What makes this goal's enduring popularity even more remarkable is that it was part of a series that the Rangers did not go on to win. The dramatic goal forced a Game 7 in Chicago, which was actually won by the Black Hawks (the team's name was two words back then).
Game 6 was such an epic, however, that it is still cherished by Rangers fans as one of the most exciting things that ever happened at MSG -- a battle so great that it didn't matter who won the overall war.
"It was a very exciting game," said Stemkowski. "It was a game that we could have lost on a couple of occasions and a game that ended in triple overtime. You get some rest and get on a plane and get back to Chicago. At the time that it happened, and when I scored the goal, I never saw it as having any huge significance in my life until many, many years later when people started telling me that they remembered it and they remembered where they were when that goal was scored."
Game 6 of the 1971 Cup semifinals took place on a Thursday night, which meant that thousands of young Rangers fans would have to stay up past their bedtime to follow it. This is one reason many people who were children at that time still recall it as a special event. Weeknight hockey wasn't all that common on TV back then, however, and the vast majority of fans following the game at home did so by listening to the radio.
Pete Stemkowski signs an autograph for a young fan at a Rangers Reunion Night for season subscribers last season. More than three decades after his famous goal, Stemkowski says people tell him they still remember where they were when he scored it.
"At the time that it (the goal) happened, I don't think anybody thought it was a big deal," Stemkowski said. "It seemed like a lot of people left (MSG) around midnight. I think it might have been a school night where kids had to go to school the next day. I'm surprised how many people listened to it on their transistors. I was up in Far Rockaway yesterday. They didn't even get TV back then. Everything was radio. People told me that if their parents had known they were under the covers with their transistor radios listening to that game, they wouldn't have been too happy about it. I get a lot of people telling me that."
The series had opened in Chicago with an overtime win for the Rangers. In a sign of things to come, Stemkowski had delivered the Game 1 winner at 1:37 of OT. Even though Chicago was the top seed in the West and the Rangers were second in the East, it was hard to call the Rangers' victory an upset since the teams had virtually identical records during the regular season.
Game 2 in Chicago was a different story. Behind the stellar netminding of future Hall of Famer Tony Esposito, the Hawks shut out the Rangers 2-0 to tie the series at 1-1 before it shifted to MSG for Games 3 and 4. The Rangers won Game 3 easily, but were blown out in Game 4, as a tied series went back to Chicago for its fifth game.
In Chicago, the Rangers were pushed to the brink when Bobby Hull scored at 6:35 of overtime. When the teams returned to The Garden that Thursday, the Rangers' chances of reaching their first Stanley Cup Finals in 21 years were clearly in jeopardy.
A sellout crowd at The Garden saw the Hawks roar to a 2-0 lead on a goal by Dennis Hull a t 10:19 of first period another from Chico Maki just two minutes into the second. At the other end of the ice, the Rangers were being stifled by Esposito, who would finish the game with 45 saves.
Five minutes after Maki's goal, the Blueshirts got one back when Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert
scored on assists from Vic Hadfield
and Brad Park
at 7:07 of the second period. Jean Ratelle
, then tied the game at 4:21 of the third, picking up assists from his "GAG Line" linemates Hadfield and Gilbert.
Suddenly, the Rangers had life, but from the time of Ratelle's goal to Stemkowski's eventual winner, nearly a full 60 minutes of hockey would be played. Rangers netminder Eddie Giacomin
battled Esposito save for save in what eventually emerged as the longest playoff game at Madison Square Garden in 32 years.
"We were both on fumes at that point," said Stemkowski. "But I always had the philosophy that if my legs were heavy and I was tired, I had to feel that the guy that was wearing the other jersey had to feel just as tired as I was. ... We were kind of like two boxers kind of throwing jabs at each other. Somebody's got to fall down eventually. Chicago threw a couple of right hooks at us where Mikita hit the post and I think Bill White came in and hit the crossbar. Those were two times when they could have won the game in the overtime."
The winning goal came early in the third period when Ted Irvine fired a shot at Esposito from the left faceoff circle. The puck rebounded out to Stemkowski in the slot, and the man who had joined the Rangers from Detroit in an early-season trade, managed to knock it home for the game-winner.
"I was fortunate to come down the ice at the right time," Stemkowski said, remembering the goal from 35 years ago as if it had happened yesterday. "I think we were all in a fog basically at that point, and I just happened to be in the right spot and shot the puck. It went in, and I had no idea that it went in until everybody started cheering and jumping off the bench."
Although a euphoric on-ice celebration followed the goal, and the sports writers swarmed around his locker after the game, Stemkowski said he had not idea at the time that he had just authored anything historic.
"Even a year later, even that summer, I was still thinking it was just a game that went into triple overtime in a series we had lost," Stemkowski said. "I thought it would have been a lot more significant had we won the series and maybe gone on to win the Stanley Cup."
What Stemkowski didn't see, however, was the reaction his goal produced. An entire city went wild, and media coverage intensified as the teams went to Chicago for Game 7 just three nights later. The Sunday game was televised in New York on CBS (Channel 2), and drew a phenomenal audience in the era before cable TV geometrically increased the number of available stations. One report at the time said that 42.5 percent of the people watching TV in the New York area had the Rangers game on that day.
Unfortunately, Game 7 did not go as well as Game 6. Chicago took an early 1-0 lead before Stemkowski tied the game at 1-1 late in the opening period. The Rangers then delighted their fans by going up 2-1 early in the second period, but that turned out to be the last hurrah. Cliff Koroll eventually tied the game, and Bobby Hull got the go-ahead goal early in the third period. Chico Maki hit an empty net to close out the 4-2 Chicago victory.
The Hawks went on to the Cup Finals, where they would lose to Montreal in seven games. The Blueshirts went home.
"The Rangers reached their finest hour when we won that big three overtime game," Rangers head coach and general manager Emile Francis told The Hockey News
after the series had ended. "They were down two goals and still came back and won. I am proud of them. You could say we went out with our heads high and our hearts heavy."
The following year, the Rangers paid the Hawks back -- sweeping Chicago in the semifinals to reach the 1972 Stanley Cup Finals vs. Boston. The Rangers lost that series in six games.
"The 1972 Cup Finals was a disappointment," said Stemkowski. " I really would have liked to have won a Cup for the people of New York and for Emile Francis
. He is one of the most respected people I've ever been associated with in the NHL. I think one of the things I'm most sorry about in New York is that we didn't win the Cup for him. Had there not been a guy on Boston wearing No. 4 on his jersey (Bobby Orr), I think we would have had a good chance of winning it."
Pete Stemkowski played in seven seasons and 496 games with the Rangers, scoring 113 goals.
In many ways, however, what transpired on April 29, 1971, was far more memorable than anything that transpired in the 1972 Cup Finals, which did not include a single overtime game. You had to go back more than 10 years before Stemkowski's goal to find an NHL game that ran longer, and you had to reach back all the way to the days Boston's Mel "Sudden Death" Hill in April 1939 to find one that ran longer at MSG.
Played just one year into the decade, Game 6 stood up as the longest playoff game of the 1970s. At the time it ended, Game 6 was the 18th longest game in NHL history, and it took 16 more years for a longer one to be played.
Although he played seven seasons with the Rangers, Stemkowski said it was hard to top the famous goal he scored in his first playoff run with the team. He still considers winning the Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1967 - the final year of the Original Six - to be his greatest achievement in hockey, but even that can't touch the lasting emotional impact of the triple-overtime goal.
"The fact that so many fans in this area still remember that particular play back in 1971, and when they see me they acknowledge me, it makes me feel good," Stemkowski said.
Since the early 1990s, triple overtime games have become far more common in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Stemkowski's game has dropped out of the NHL's list of the 30 longest games. Its place in the list of MSG's "50 Greatest Moments", however, is well deserved. That's because Game 6 remains the longest playoff game played at the current Madison Square Garden as well as the longest game ever won by the Blueshirts in front of their home fans - the kind that inspires an entire generation of season-ticket holders.
The monumental goal can be re-experienced on Tuesday night as part of MSG's"The 50 Greatest Moments at Madison Square Garden" program. For more information, visit MSG50.com