This One Will Last a Lifetime
Last Sunday evening, having nothing better to do, I watched an MSG-network re-broadcast of a hockey game that was played exactly fifteen years earlier, on June 14, 1994. As any New York Rangers’ fan will tell you, that was the sweet and sacred day that the Broadway Blueshirts clinched their most recent Stanley Cup, in a nail-biter of a Game 7 over the Vancouver Canucks, to earn their first championship since 1940.
To the uninitiated, i.e., those who don’t get the whole sport thing, it may seem a bit odd to re-watch a game originally played fifteen years ago; but don’t forget that the word ‘fan’ derives from ‘fanatic,’ and no one ever accused fanatics—sports or otherwise—of rational thought or action.
In fact, it’s not so unusual from the standpoint of the television networks who program these so-called classic games. All the major sports networks do this. To name a few, the Yankees’ and Mets’ networks—YES and SNY, respectively—show old baseball games; and ESPN devotes an entire channel, ESPN-Classic, to showing famous and infamous games.
Airing this classic 1994 Rangers game is smart programming for another reason: the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs had just ended two nights before, with the young Pittsburgh Penguins beating the veteran-laced Detroit Red Wings in their own Game 7. When you follow a sport closely for an entire season, when you watch a game or more per night for the ten-week span that is hockey’s “second season,” believe me, you are jonesing for just one more game.
For this year’s playoffs I, like thousands of hockey fans across North America, had gotten in the habit of flipping on the TV and watching any game that was being shown. It’s what fans do, even if it isn’t your team playing. Ends of seasons are difficult to bear, so watching these classic games are like couch-potato methadone. They extend the season by one more night, with a comforting air of familiarity. With the outcome long-determined, you can watch the game with a more analytical, less emotional bent, with your mind tuned to historical anomalies.
In 1994, I watched the final round of the NHL playoffs in Prague. I lived in the city the previous year working as a graphic designer at the Prague Post, one of the city’s English language weeklies. I returned to the States and spent an in-between year in suburban New Jersey (where I grew up), figuring out my next adventure. That year, I worked for my two brothers’ house-painting company; did a little editing for a children’s book publisher in Manhattan; started dating the woman who would become my wife; and saw just about every Rangers game in that 1993-94 season.
Most the games I watched with family, either with my younger brother, Eric, in the apartment we shared in Madison, New Jersey; or with my father at my boyhood home in nearby Chatham, where my parents still lived. My father was born in March, 1940, so he was a month old the last time Lord Stanley’s trophy paraded around Manhattan ice. In essence, the Rangers had never won in his lifetime.
In the semi-finals, the Rangers beat their cross-river, arch-rivals, the New Jersey Devils in a double-overtime, Game 7 thriller. The Rangers would be vying for The Cup against the Vancouver Canucks and their diminutive “Russian Rocket,” Pavel Bure. In the meantime, I had planned a return visit to Prague, and while it occurred to me that I would be out of the country during the Stanley Cup finals, I knew that if I planned my trip around the possibility of the Rangers making the final round, I would jinx them.
I watched Game 1 in the States (a Rangers’ OT loss) and flew to the Czech Republic the next day. My friend Lucie met me at Prague-Ruzyne airport and I had barely picked up my luggage when I told her my predicament: where could I watch the rest of the series? She was incredulous. She hated sports and looked disappointed to find this out about me. During the bus ride from the airport to her flat, I told her of the Rangers 54-year drought and how my dad was 54 years old. And when they win—if they win—I had to see it.
Lucie’s friend, Lubos—a guy I had met and drank with many times when I lived in Prague—said that Czech TV was live-broadcasting all the games of the finals, and that the opening face-off would be at 2 a.m. He invited me to watch at his small flat, where he lived with his wife, Dasha, and their two young children.
That night, a small crowd of friends gathered at a local pub, U Bubicka (The Granny), then at closing time, made our way to Lubos’s flat to watch the game. The broadcast turned out to be the ESPN satellite feed, over-dubbed with Czech announcers. After two periods, our small crowd of friends had thinned to just Lubos and me.
The rest of the series transpired exactly in this manner. I showed up shortly before 2 a.m. on game nights bearing eight half-liter bottles of Staropramen, the local beer. Lubos and I watched the games in his dark living room as quietly as possible, while his wife and two kids slept in the next room. Lubos rooted for the Canucks—I suspected, just to give me shit—so that whenever Bure touched the puck, Lubos would chant his name three times in quick succession: “Bure Bure Bure.”
The Rangers won Games 2, 3 and 4, but Vancouver came back and won Games 5 and 6. With the series tied at three games apiece, the final game went back to New York City. The season had come down to one day, Tuesday, June 14. An entire 84-game schedule—plus four grueling rounds of the playoffs—compacted into one game, win or lose.
At this point, I wished I was back home, rubbing elbows with hundreds of like-minded fanatics in a downtown bar or watching the game with my father. But I reconsidered. There I was, in a hockey-mad foreign country, watching the finals with a guy who made me sandwiches between periods and who was getting two hours of sleep per night because he had to be at his job at 8 a.m. (Lubos worked as a stagehand at the Czech State Opera House), a guy who didn’t speak English and who was pretending to be a Canucks fan in order to lend an aura of faux-tension and camaraderie to the whole experience. I honestly believed that I was the luckiest—and perhaps most unique—Ranger fan in the world.
For Game 7, I showed up with the beer as usual, subdued—solemn even—but hopeful. When the Rangers scored in the first period, Lubos stood up with me and cheered. I looked at him, very surprised. I had turned him. We high-fived. From then on, he dropped the pretense of rooting against me and the Rangers.
Somehow it got down to a minute and a half left with the Rangers ahead 3-2. More weird things happened in that last 90 seconds than I had ever seen in a hockey game: multiple icings and two time-outs, toilet paper thrown on the ice and time-clock discrepancies. Finally with 1.6 seconds on the clock and a face-off deep in the Rangers zone, time ran out on the Canucks. The crowd at Madison Square Garden went insane. And in Prague, one bleary-eyed Czech and one ecstatic American also celebrated. Lubos stood and offered a handshake. I hugged him instead, clapping him madly on the back. I cried as I thought of my dad. His 54 years of heartbreak, frustration, and proxy-loser’s syndrome were over.
I walked down the four flights of steps to the street. It was 5:30 a.m. and already fully light. I was simultaneously drained and wired, and so did not feel like sleeping. I walked around the neighborhood for awhile, a bit dazed. An auroral haze obscured the city Centrum, which was usually visible from there. At 6:15, from a street-corner phone booth, I phoned home. It was just past midnight in New Jersey.
My father answered and the first thing he said was “I thought it might be you.” He had been crying, it was in his voice. He said I was the second person to call him after the game. The first was an old high school friend of his, with whom he used to drive into the city from New Jersey to watch Rangers games at the old Madison Square Garden.
I congratulated him, as if he, my father, was the owner of the Rangers. I asked how the play-by-play transpired as the final seconds ticked down. Did Jon Davidson or Sam Rosen say anything memorable, I wondered.
There was a pause, as he tried to recall the exact words. “Yes,” my father answered. “Rosen screamed ‘The waiting is over. This one will last a lifetime.'”
Before we hung up, I told him that I had missed all the post-game celebration and wrap-up, because the Czech broadcast signed off immediately after the final horn, Dad said not to worry, that he had videotaped everything. He said that when I we would have to watch it together sometime. Which of course we did.
Fifteen years on, the Rangers still haven’t won another Stanley Cup, have never even made it to the Finals again, nor ever seriously threatened. Based on their performance in this year’s playoffs (losing to the Washington Capitals in the opening round), the Blueshirts don’t seem like they are poised to threaten any time soon either. Re-watching the classic game the other night reminded me of some interesting trivial bits that I had forgotten.
1) The last un-helmeted man in the NHL, Craig MacTavish, played in the series, also for the Rangers. The league had handed down the mandatory helmet rule a few years previous, but grandfathered anyone playing who didn’t want to wear one. 2) The Rangers had four Russians: defensemen Sergei Zubov and Alexander Karpovtsev and forwards Sergei Nemchinov and Alexei Kovalev. Astoundingly, these four were the first Russians to get their names engraved on the Stanley Cup, even though Russians had been in the league for many years at that point. 3) Ranger’s defenseman Brian Leetch became the first American to win the Conn Smythe trophy, given for the playoff MVP. Previously, it had been all Canadians.
Speaking of Russians and the Conn Smyth (and bringing us neatly back to 2009), this year’s Conn Smyth award also saw a first: Evgeni Malkin, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, became the first Russian-born player ever to win the award. Malkin scored 36 points in this year’s playoffs and, in perhaps the series’ most (inadvertently) comical moment, he threw and missed nearly that many punches in an end-of-Game 2 scrap against Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg. (In Malkin’s defense, Zetterberg also missed most, if not all, of his haymakers).
And finally, the league (and NBC, who showed this year’s finals), must be happy that Game 7 was the most watched NHL game since Game 6 of the 1973 Stanley Cup finals between Montreal and Chicago. While the 8 million viewers pales in comparison to the other three big American team sports, you gotta start somewhere, right?
Going forward, I hope that MSG shows this 1994-version of Game 7 every June 14; if they do, I’ll make it a tradition. And most of all, I wonder where I’ll be in another 15 years, on the 30th anniversary of the Rangers historic win. And if they’ll have won another title by then. Hopefully, that win in 1994 won’t have to last me a lifetime, like it has thus far for my father.