The Stanley Cup Final between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings begins tonight. I’ve been a Rangers fan since 1990, when I decided to root for them in their first-round playoff series against the Islanders. I began following the team closely during the 1991-1992 season, Mark Messier’s first with the team, as they won the President’s Trophy before being shocked by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs.
But, of course, my fondest Rangers memories are from the 1993-1994 season, which culminated with them winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940. I was in eighth grade that year, and had several classmates who were also fans to talk about the team with. I listened to most of the games on the radio because my family did not have cable. The games were usually on 660 WFAN unless they were at the same time as a Knicks game, in which case they got bumped over to 1050. Howie Rose did play-by-play and Sal “Red Light” Messina was the color commentator. However, the one game I got to watch on television all season was game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey, so I missed Rose’s famous “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!” call of Stéphane Matteau’s double-overtime series winning goal live, though WFAN replayed it numerous times over the next few days. (Here is a clip of the play with Rose’s call.)
Most hockey fans are familiar with Rose’s call now, as it gets replayed every time the Rangers have a big playoff game, and it is one of the greatest North American sports announcing moments ever. But what gets forgotten, and, in hindsight, what was terribly unfair to Rose, is that the Rangers decided to let their long-time play-by-play man Marv Albert announce periods one and three of games 5 and 7 as the team tried to win the cup on home ice, with Rose doing period two. Now, Marv Albert is my favorite announcer of all time; he is the best basketball announcer of all time and is quite a good hockey announcer (much better than his younger brother Kenny, who absolutely murdered this year’s Western Conference finals for NBC). But it seems cruel to have taken this moment away from Rose, though now he’s an announcer for the Islanders, so who cares, I suppose.
But at the time, I was excited to have Albert announcing game 7. I was listening to the game in the living room on our family’s stereo, lying on the carpet, wishing I could be watching on television. The local Fox station, channel 5, tried to broker a deal with the MSG Network to show the game on free television to no avail, though they were able to show all of the post-game festivities. My most vivid memories from the game involve my favorite player, Brian Leetch, whom I had liked since his time with Team USA during the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. I remember the excitement in Albert’s voice just before Leetch opened the scoring in game 7. I knew he was going to score before he scored, and then he did score, and from that point on I knew the Rangers were going to win. I also remember Leetch throwing a hip check later on that sent one of the Canucks flying, and how excited Albert got again: you could tell that the game and the team meant a lot to him personally, which is a side of himself that he very rarely shows on air. (The hip check is at 2:40 of this video, and Leetch’s goal is at 1:05.)
My family moved away from New York a few weeks later, and though I continued to root for the Rangers, it was never the same. I couldn’t listen to the games on the radio, and had to be content to catch a game whenever the Rangers were on nationally on ESPN or Fox with that ridiculous highlighted blue puck and stupid scoreboard robots (which Fox still uses in their NFL telecasts! Unbelievable.). I would always watch the Rangers in the playoffs, but without the bond that gets built up over a long season the games never felt nearly as life-and-death as they did in ’94.
As I grew older, baseball reasserted itself as my favorite sport and soccer became a close second, and now I follow the Mets and Manchester United with the same day-to-day devotion that I used to give to the Rangers. I’ve become closer to the Rangers now than I have been in years because I live in New York again, and I get MSG so I can watch them whenever I want, but I also know that I will never love them as much as I loved them then (a horrible admission, I feel dirty all over putting it in words, but it is the truth). In reality, all of my interactions with the Rangers since the mid-1990s have been a form of nostalgia for the 1994 team, an attempt to get back to those feelings of sheer joy and wonder.
Nevertheless, as the finals begin tonight, I’ll be rooting hard for the guys in blue, red, and white, and hoping that they will create some unforgettable triumphant moments of their own. Who will be this year’s Stéphane Matteau? Which save by Henrik Lundqvist will be remembered like Mike Richter’s save of Pavel Bure’s penalty shot in game 4 of the ’94 finals? (You can see video of it here. I love John Davidson’s reaction when the penalty shot is called: “Get your cardiologist!”) And most importantly, whose smile will be as big when they lift the cup as Mark Messier’s was when he held it high in front of all those screaming fans at the Garden?