Marcel Proust’s protagonist in his epic work, Remembrances of Things Past, bites into a cake dipped in tea which instantly “reveals” volumes of childhood memories containing the “essence of the past.” I had a similar experience a few days ago at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Instead of a delicious treat, the trigger of my “involuntary memory” was watching the New York Rangers in an intense, close Stanley Cup Final game.
I will never be as emotionally invested in any sports team as I was in the 1994 New York Rangers. Although I grew up in the temperate climate of the Monterey Peninsula, before the San Jose Sharks existed, and when there were no local television broadcasts of the sport, I was a hockey fanatic. My grandfather, Karel A. Krasa, was a prominent hockey player, coach, and manager in pre-WWII Europe and he would tell me stories about playing on outdoor frozen ponds in what is now the Czech Republic. Since we did not have a local NHL team, I picked the New York Rangers as I had loved the city when I first visited the metropolis as an impressionable 9-year-old boy.
At the time, the Rangers had not won the Stanley Cup since 1940 – the longest Cup drought in the NHL. Most fans attributed the Cup drought to a curse that was placed on the Rangers, either because the team burned the mortgage to the old Madison Square Garden in the bowl of the Stanley Cup, thus desecrating a sacred object, or because Red Dutton, the former owner of the rival New York Americans, was furious that the Rangers essentially froze his team out of the league. Regardless of the curse’s origin, the Rangers were always taunted on the road with mocking jeers of “1940!”
My mother ordered my first hockey sweater (real hockey fans refer to “jerseys” as “sweaters”) from a catalog when I was in 6th Grade. I wore my red, white, and blue Rangers sweater proudly to Pacific Grove Middle School. None of my fellow students were hockey fans and most of them had probably never even heard of the New York Rangers.
The following year, 1991-1992, the Sharks began their inaugural season and their games were televised. I remember watching my first Rangers game on television when they played the Sharks at Madison Square Garden in the fall. Adam Graves won the game for the Rangers with an overtime goal. In January of that year, I saw the Rangers in person for the first time when they played the Sharks at the Cow Palace in Daly City.
With five-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier joining the team as its captain, the Rangers were favored to win the Stanley Cup that year. They had the best regular season record in the NHL but were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The next year, their second-best player, Brian Leetch, ironically injured himself while slipping on ice getting out of a taxi cab and they missed the playoffs. The curse was in full force and effect.
In 1993-1994, the Rangers were hot again. With a new head coach and a more disciplined system, the Rangers once again finished the regular season with the best record in the NHL. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, they were unstoppable. They defeated their cross-town rivals, the New York Islanders in four games, and defeated the Washington Capitals in five games.
In the third round, they faced trouble against the New Jersey Devils. Several games went into nail-biting overtimes. They were down 3 games to 2 with Game 6 in New Jersey. Facing elimination, Captain Mark Messier guaranteed a Rangers victory, causing the Big Apple media to compare the comment to Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III guarantee and Babe Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series. The Rangers were losing 2-0. Some of my friends called to mock me claiming that the Rangers were going to be eliminated. Mark Messier ended up scoring a hat trick to lead the Rangers to a 4-2 victory.
In Game 7, the Rangers were nursing a 1-0 lead when the Devils tied the game with less than 8 seconds left. That sudden death overtime was one of the most intense games of any sport that I had ever watched. Each Devils shot was frightening and each Rangers shot was exhilarating. In double overtime, Stephane Matteau scored to send the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final.
In the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks, the Rangers were again pushed to a Game 7, after blowing a 3 games to 1 series lead. They were leading late in the game by only one goal. With 10 minutes to go in the game, I told myself that the Rangers might really be cursed, that the Canucks might come back, that they might never win the Stanley Cup, but the Rangers “version” of winning the Cup might be to see how close they can get. Then the Rangers were 5 minutes away! Then 3 minutes away! The last minute was torture. They took face-off after face-off in the Rangers zone. With less than ten seconds to go in the game, they cleared the puck and players jumped off the bench in celebration. I thought they had won the Cup but with less than 2 seconds to go, play was stopped on an icing call. It seemed the anticipation would never end! Finally, Craig MacTavish took the final face-off and the wait was over! The Rangers had won the Stanley Cup, ending a 54-year drought and breaking the curse!
This year the Rangers returned to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994. I drove down to Los Angeles to attend Game 2 against the Los Angeles Kings. I happened to sit with several other Rangers fans and we reminisced about 1994, cheered for every Rangers goal, and consoled each other for every Kings goal. The game went into double overtime. I hadn’t felt that level of intensity watching a hockey game in 20 years.
Excitedly watching the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final this year with fellow Rangers fans instantly brought me back to my 15-year-old self. Then I thought of my 4-year-old son who has become quite the hockey fanatic, both as a fan and a player, and who has thoroughly enjoyed the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, especially the Sharks and Rangers games. The past, present, and future coalesced.
KRASA LAW is located at 704-D Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, and Kyle may be reached at 831-920-0205.