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The 1996-97 season was memorable for the Rangers in several ways. Memorable for the playoff run in which the team advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. Memorable for the individual and collective performances of several of the Rangers’ marquee players. Memorable because of the introduction of a new jersey and logo, one which would resonate with fans for years to come.

And, memorable because the greatest player in hockey history now called The Garden home.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Wayne Gretzky said prior to the start of the 1996-97 season after he signed with the Rangers as a free agent in July of 1996. “To get a chance to play not only with Mark, but for this team and in this city, I’m really looking forward to it.”

The Mark to whom Wayne was referring, of course, was Mark Messier. Messier and Gretzky – born eight days apart in January of 1961 – were teammates with the Edmonton Oilers for nine seasons in the 1980s, leading the team to four Stanley Cups in a five-year span and forming the core of a dynasty. It had been eight years since they had played a game together, and the reunion of the two legends was the story that captivated fans and media alike in not only New York, but throughout North America.

As the start of the season approached, Messier and Gretzky were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, and starred in two national commercials to help promote the league’s nationally televised games. Although the Rangers’ roster featured players who were stars and, in some cases, future Hall of Famers in their own right, those players were also captivated by the once-in-a-lifetime experience they had.

“When Gretz signed, I felt like a kid again,” said Adam Graves, who was entering his 10th NHL season and sixth with the Rangers in 1996-97. “To see the chemistry between him and Mess, and certainly having the opportunity to play with both of them at the same time, was one of those privileges that you look back on and say, ‘how lucky was I?’”

Graves, who was one of the Rangers’ alternate captains (along with Brian Leetch), offered to relinquish his “A” to Gretzky upon his arrival. Gretzky, who had worn a letter in each of his previous 14 seasons, declined the offer, citing how Graves deserved to have it. Graves said at the time that, “you just can’t say enough about the man and what a classy guy he is.”

As far as the captaincy, there was never any doubt that Messier would continue in that role.

“I didn’t have to go in there and take the world on my shoulders and be a ‘rah-rah’ guy,” Gretzky said a year later in the video Gretzky: The Great One and the Next Ones, which was released in the fall of 1997. “I was able to just go into the locker room, fit in, and be one of the guys, which I’ve always wanted to be.”

The team that Gretzky was joining had Stanley Cup aspirations. The core of the 1994 Stanley Cup Championship team was still intact, as 10 players from that squad – Messier, Leetch, Graves, Mike Richter, Jeff Beukeboom, Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Nemchinov, Alexander Karpovtsev, Glenn Healy, and Doug Lidster (who had left and then rejoined the team) – were on the opening night roster in 1996-97. Given their overall team success (the Rangers had also advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the two subsequent years after winning the Cup), elite level of play from their top players (Messier and Leetch were finalists for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player and the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s Best Defenseman, respectively, in 1995-96), and the addition of Gretzky, it was not unreasonable to believe that the team had a chance to make a run at the Cup.

As Training Camp began, the Rangers also had nine players represent their respective countries at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, which was held in September of 1996: Messier, Gretzky, and Graves played for Canada, Leetch and Richter played for the United States, Kovalev, Nemchinov, and Karpovtsev played for Russia, while Niklas Sundstrom played for Sweden. The final was a best-of-three showdown between Canada and the United States, with Team USA winning the tournament behind the stellar play of Richter, the tournament’s MVP, and Leetch, Team USA’s captain. For the Rangers’ two American stars, their high-caliber play at the World Cup of Hockey was just a sign of things to come during the 1996-97 season.

The regular season began on October 5, 1996 with a 4-4 tie in Boston, as the Rangers rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period to earn a point. The following night was the team’s home opener and Gretzky’s first game as a Ranger at MSG. Despite the hoopla surrounding the game, the Rangers lost to the defending Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers, 5-2.

The Blueshirts were inconsistent throughout the first quarter of the season, posting a 7-13-4 record through the first 24 games. Lengthy point streaks from Gretzky (a 15-game point streak from the second game of the season through the first week of November) and Leetch (a 14-game point streak from the end of October through the first game in December) were bright spots, but the team had yet to gel.

Part of a road trip in late November helped turn the Rangers’ season around. After losing three consecutive games in Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver, the Rangers defeated the Coyotes, 3-1 (as Messier scored all three goals), and then defeated the Colorado Avalanche, the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the next night by a 5-2 score, with Messier scoring two more goals.

The game against the Coyotes began a stretch in which the Rangers posted a league-best 15-3-1 record in 19 contests from November 26 through January 4. Richter, who had set a Rangers franchise record with a 20-game unbeaten streak during the 1993-94 season, established a Rangers franchise record with a personal 11-game winning streak during this stretch. In 15 appearances during this 19-game stretch for the Blueshirts, Richter posted a 14-0-1 record, along with a 2.05 GAA, a .940 SV%, and 2 SO. Gretzky led the Rangers with 31 points during those 19 games, while Messier led the team with 14 goals in that stretch.

Some of the memorable highlights during this extended run took place in a seven-day span in late December. On December 21 in Montreal, Gretzky had three primary assists from his “office” behind the net, including one on Luc Robitaille’s game-winning goal in overtime that left Canadiens goaltender Jocelyn Thibault exasperated, as the Rangers earned a 3-2 win. The following night, Messier and Leetch each recorded four points, with Messier becoming the fifth player in NHL history to tally at least 1,500 career points, as the Rangers defeated the Panthers, 7-3, at MSG. And on December 27, Leetch became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen, passing Ron Greschner, and set up Bruce Driver’s game-winning goal in the waning seconds of regulation to give the Rangers a 3-2 win over the Mighty Ducks at MSG.

As the calendar turned to January, a new year wasn’t the only thing in store for the Rangers – a new jersey was as well. On January 10, the Rangers unveiled their first alternate jersey in franchise history, which was navy-based and featured the head of the Statue of Liberty in the center of it, and the “NYR” letters stretched horizontally underneath it.

“I remember when I saw them for the first time that I thought they were very cool, to coin a phrase," said Graves, who was one of three Rangers who took part in the jersey unveiling ceremony, along with Messier and Robitaille. "For me, the jersey was so New York with the Statue of Liberty.”

Adam Graves

“We loved it when the jerseys came out," said Richter, whose iconic mask that featured the Statue of Liberty on the crown was part of the inspiration for the jersey design. “There weren't many teams that had third jerseys at that point in time. … With a third jersey, you don't want to diminish what you already have, and this one didn't diminish it at all. This was so original, so well done, and so thought out. When you put the Liberty jersey on, you were proud to put it on.”

The jersey and logo were both instant hits with fans (and still resonate today). The Rangers wore the Liberty jersey for the first time on January 13 in a game against the Islanders at MSG and would continue wearing it throughout the second half of the season. The contest against the Islanders was the Rangers’ final game prior to the NHL All-Star break, and during that year’s Skills Competition, the team’s three All-Stars – Messier, Gretzky, and Leetch – all wore the Liberty jersey on a national stage.

While Messier and Gretzky were having exceptional individual seasons and their reunion was one of the most talked about stories in sports, Leetch was driving the Rangers’ success in 1996-97. In late December of 1996, Gretzky said, “Brian is the catalyst. If he doesn’t win the Norris this year, they should put the trophy away and not give it to anybody.”

Leetch ultimately won the Norris Trophy in 1996-97, capturing the honor for the second time in his remarkable career. He was also named the Rangers’ Most Valuable Player and received the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. Although ice time was not officially recorded game-by-game by the NHL until the following season, it was noted that Leetch would routinely play near 30 minutes per game, and that number would rise during the playoffs.

With 78 points (20 goals, 58 assists) and a plus-31 rating while skating in all 82 games and controlling play at both ends of the ice, it’s not difficult to see why Leetch received the accolades he did in 1996-97. Leetch credited the 1996 World Cup of Hockey as one of the reasons why he had the strong season he did.

“100% that helped me,” Leetch said. “You jump right in with the best players in the world and you’re playing exhibition games within a week, and then the tournament starts a week later. I remember when we came back to Training Camp in New York, and the first few practices seemed slow because of how intense those World Cup games were. I was already in shape skating-wise, thinking-wise, and passing-wise, and I think that made a huge difference for me that season.”

Years later, Gretzky looked back on his time playing with Leetch and wrote in his book 99: Stories of the Game that, “People ask me who the most underrated hockey player is, and I’d have to say Brian Leetch. Yes, he’s won the Calder (1989) and the Conn Smythe (1994) and the Norris (1992, 1997), but he was such an incredible teammate. With his energy and abilities, along with his willingness to block shots and do everything possible for the team, he had the heart of a lion.”

Following the All-Star Break, the Rangers made their final adjustments as they prepared for the playoffs. The biggest move the team made prior to the trade deadline was acquiring forwards Esa Tikkanen – who had played a pivotal role for the Rangers when they won the Stanley Cup in 1994 – and Russ Courtnall from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Nemchinov and Brian Noonan (who had been re-acquired by the Rangers from St. Louis in November of 1996).

The Rangers finished the regular season in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and faced the Panthers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Panthers opened the series with a 3-0 win in Florida. For Game 2, the Rangers decided to wear the Liberty jersey (instead of their traditional blue road one; this would continue on the road for the remainder of the playoffs), and shut out the Panthers, 3-0, behind goals from Gretzky, Tikkanen, and Robitaille, and a 31-save shutout from Richter.

With control of the series hanging in the balance in Game 3 at MSG, the Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. The Panthers scored three unanswered goals in the second period to take a 3-2 lead. The score remained that way until the final minute of regulation, when the Rangers pulled Richter for an extra skater. Out of a scramble in front of Florida’s net, Robitaille scored with 18.9 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game, and the contest would be decided in overtime.

The Panthers believed they won the game less than three minutes into the extra session, but Scott Mellanby’s apparent goal was disallowed, and Mellanby was called for a goaltender interference penalty instead. With three and a half minutes remaining in overtime, Leetch intercepted a pass and led the Rangers into Florida’s zone. Leetch dropped the puck back to Tikkanen, who took a slap shot from the top of the right circle. Tikkanen’s shot hit the bar behind Panthers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck; Tikkanen believed it was the bar inside the net, everyone else believed it was the crossbar.

Tikkanen immediately put his hands in the air to celebrate a goal, while the immediate call on the ice was no goal and play continued. At the next stoppage, the officials went to video replay to determine whether the puck entered the net. Upon video review, the play was ruled to be a goal, and Tikkanen, his teammates, and MSG celebrated as the Rangers took a two-games-to-one lead in the series.

Esa Tikkanen

Game 4 featured a virtuoso Gretzky performance in what was one of the top moments in franchise history at MSG. With the Panthers leading 1-0 in the second period, Gretzky scored a power play goal, taking a one-timer shot from a Leetch pass to tie the game. Then, less than four minutes later, Gretzky and Robitaille had a 2-on-1 break; Gretzky received a pass from Robitaille at the right circle and took a slap shot from the right circle that beat Vanbiesbrouck just under the crossbar (knocking the water bottle above the net into the air) and put the Rangers ahead, 2-1.

Less than three minutes later, he did it again. Skating down the right wing, he faked taking a slap shot, held onto the puck for three more seconds to create a different angle at the right circle, then took a slap shot that beat Vanbiesbrouck just inside the far goal post.

It was a natural hat trick – three goals in a span of six minutes and 23 seconds that electrified MSG and gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead.

As hats rained down on the ice, Gretzky skated towards the Rangers bench, where Messier (the only other player to ever score three goals in one period of a playoff game for the Rangers, which he did in his “Guarantee” game against New Jersey in 1994) was waiting to give him a massive hug.

Mark Messier & Wayne Gretzky

The Rangers won the game, 3-2, to take a three-games-to-one lead in the series, and they had a chance to eliminate the Panthers in Florida in Game 5. They looked poised to do so 39 seconds into the game, when Messier scored a goal on a breakaway to give the Rangers the lead. The Panthers tied the game before the end of the first period, but Messier scored his second goal of the game in the final minute of the second period to give the Rangers the lead once again. Florida tied the game with a power play goal in the third period, and for the second time in the series, the game would be decided in overtime. In overtime, Tikkanen ended the game and the series, as he received a cross-ice pass from Messier and took a shot that beat Vanbiesbrouck high to the glove side.

The Rangers’ opponent in the Eastern Conference Semifinals was their cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils. The Devils had the best record in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. In contrast to the Rangers, who had the fourth-most goals in the NHL during the regular season and relied on their offense for success, New Jersey allowed the fewest goals in the league during the regular season.

The key to the series for the Rangers turned out to be Richter, who put on a performance that was among the best of his legendary career.

“Mike Richter was one of the all-time great big-game goaltenders," said Graves, who was Richter's teammate for 10 seasons with the Rangers. "He never quit on a puck. His athleticism, his mental toughness, and his preparation were second to none. He saved his best for the most important times. He was one of those special athletes, and we knew when Mike was in net, we had a chance to win every game that he was playing.”

The Devils won Game 1 of the series, 2-0, in New Jersey. The Rangers returned the favor with a 2-0 with of their own in Game 2, as Richter stopped all 32 shots he faced and made a game-saving play with his bare hand (after his glove had fallen off) to prevent the Devils from tying the game in the final minute of the third period.

“I really felt great and on top of my game,” Richter recalled about the 1997 playoffs. “The guys were playing so well in front of me and we were playing amazing defense. Great teams learn to win, and have the ability to win, in different ways, and that's something Mess always said. We always pointed to 1994 and how we were able to win - whether it was through toughness, speed and skill, or defense - and that's definitely what 1997 was about. Gretzky could score a hat trick one game, but we could also win a game 2-1 if we had to.”

Back in New York for Game 3, the Rangers took a two-games-to-one lead in the series with a 3-2 victory, as Tikkanen scored two goals, Gretzky added a goal and an assist, and Richter made 33 saves. In Game 4, Richter made the difference once again, stopping all 35 shots the Devils took in a 3-0 Rangers win that gave the team a three-games-to-one lead.

In an afternoon game on Mother’s Day, the Rangers faced the Devils in Game 5 in New Jersey. Tikkanen opened the scoring, beating Martin Brodeur on a breakaway after Gretzky set him up with a long outlet pass. The Devils tied the game in the second period, and neither team scored a goal again in regulation, which set up the first overtime game of the series.

With just under six minutes remaining in overtime, Graves ended the series. In a goal like the one Stephane Matteau scored nearly three years prior, Graves fought off a check from Scott Stevens and while he was behind the net, took a wraparound shot. The puck eluded the stick of Brodeur, who tried to poke check the puck off of Graves’ stick, and went in between Brodeur’s pads and into the net. Graves jumped up and down after realizing the puck went in, as did the many Rangers fans in attendance at the Meadowlands.

Richter posted a 0.77 GAA and a .978 SV% in the five-game series, allowing just four goals and stopping 178 of 182 shots; his .978 SV% in the series against the Devils remains the best save percentage any Rangers goalie has posted in a single playoff series (min. 60 minutes played) since the NHL began to track the statistic in 1955-56. After the series ended, Brodeur said, “Mike Richter, he was the answer for them. He outplayed myself. I always said he's one of those guys who can win a game all by himself. … It's unbelievable. I've never seen that before in my life.”

Rangers V Devils

The Rangers’ opponent in the Eastern Conference Final was the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that finished one point behind New Jersey in the regular season, had one of the game’s superstars in Eric Lindros, and one of the league’s most feared lines at the time, the “Legion of Doom” trio that featured Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg.

Although the Rangers had won eight of 10 games through the first two rounds of the playoffs, there was an undercurrent that was starting to affect the team – injuries. The Blueshirts already entered the playoffs without Kovalev, who suffered a torn ACL in January that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Bill Berg, a key member of the Rangers’ checking line, suffered a fractured leg in Game 3 of the series against Florida that sidelined him for the rest of the playoffs. Niklas Sundstrom, one of the Rangers’ talented, young forwards who had 24 goals and 52 points in the regular season, sustained a broken arm on a check from the Devils’ John MacLean in Game 4 of the series against New Jersey that ended his season prematurely.

As the Eastern Conference Final got underway, this theme would unfortunately continue for the Rangers. Just like the first two rounds, the Rangers lost Game 1, as the Flyers began the series with a 3-1 win in Philadelphia. And, as was the case in the first two series, the Rangers responded with a road win in Game 2.

With injuries to the Rangers’ forwards mounting, and the team unable to get the last change on the road, Head Coach Colin Campbell decided to use Messier and Gretzky on the same line, along with Tikkanen, while Graves, who usually played on Messier’s left wing, would center a checking line. The line shuffling worked in Game 2, as Gretzky scored a hat trick, Messier added three points, including the game-winning goal, and the Rangers escaped Philadelphia with a 5-4 win.

What they couldn’t escape from, however, was an injury to one of their most important players. With just over six minutes remaining in the third period, Leetch was hit into the boards behind the Rangers’ net by Philadelphia’s Trent Klatt, and his right wrist took the brunt of the impact.

Always a warrior and never one to make excuses, Leetch returned to the game and stayed in the lineup for the remainder of the series, but it was noticeable that he was playing through an injury.

In addition to Leetch, the Rangers’ injury list only grew prior to, and during, Game 3. Patrick Flatley, who, like Berg, was invaluable on the Rangers’ checking line, suffered a rib injury in Game 1 that kept him out for the rest of the series. Ken Gernander, who had been recalled from the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton following injuries to several of the team’s forwards, suffered a concussion and separated shoulder after taking a hit from Klatt (his brother-in-law) in the opening minutes of Game 3.

And, besides the injuries that were adding up, Karpovtsev returned to Russia on the morning of Game 3 after learning that his mother passed away, and he ultimately missed Game 3 and Game 4 of the series.

Although the odds appeared to be stacked against them, the Rangers fought valiantly. They rallied twice in the third period of Game 3 to tie the game, but the Flyers scored three unanswered goals late in the third period to win the contest, 6-3. By the start of Game 4, the Rangers only had six forwards in the lineup who had started the season with the team – Messier, Gretzky, Graves, Robitaille, Shane Churla, and Darren Langdon. Dallas Eakins, who was a defenseman in the Rangers organization, had been moved up to forward to fill in on the team’s checking line.

Once again, the Rangers continued to battle in Game 4. Trailing 1-0 early in the third period, Tikkanen scored a shorthanded goal to tie the contest. The Flyers regained the lead by scoring a shorthanded goal of their own with less than four minutes remaining in regulation, but the Rangers tied the game again just over a minute later, when Leetch took a centering pass from Gretzky behind the net and scored on a one-time shot from right in front of the net.

The Flyers, however, got a power play opportunity late in regulation, and with 6.8 seconds left on the clock, Lindros beat Richter with a backhand shot to put Philadelphia ahead for good.

Two days later, the Rangers lost Game 5, 4-2, in Philadelphia, and their season came to an end. While the ending wasn’t what the team had envisioned, the heart the team showed and moments they created throughout the course of the season made them one of the most memorable teams in franchise history.

“I really loved that team,” Richter said. “It was a great group of guys and had a great run until we were banged up and injured towards the end."

“I shake my head about that season sometimes,” Messier wrote in his autobiography No One Wins Alone. “We made it to the conference finals on half a roster running on fumes, and lost to a Philly team running on all cylinders. Maybe if we’d been healthy, we still wouldn’t have won, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that everybody gave their hearts. What we were able to accomplish that year can’t be looked on as a failure. If you do, you overlook the integrity of what was done. If underachieving is among the worst things in sports, then pushing beyond what you’re capable of is a badge of honor.”

Looking back, Gretzky – who is quick to acknowledge how well he was treated by the fans in not only 1996-97 but also throughout his three-year tenure with the team and subsequent years – said that one of the rewarding parts of that year was learning about the people of New York and why it’s special to be a Ranger. And it’s something that resonates as much today as it did over a quarter of a century ago.

“The thing I found most interesting in New York is that the people are really hard-working, and they just want to see an honest effort,” Gretzky said. “If you give an honest effort, play to the best of your ability, and play as hard as you can each and every night, the people will back you. That is what I found out about New York."

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