Rangers vs Devils… 18 years later

Messier and Gretzky were practically unbeatable in Edmonton

The New York Rangers clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference finals the other night; they now face their bitter rival New Jersey Devils.   Before getting into the specifics of the match up and its significance;  let’s have a look at what led up to that monumental series and why it was so important to me personally.

Learning about sports and competition

When I was 6-7 years old, with Saturday night came a huge problem (as big as it gets at that age).   It was time to watch “Hockey Night in Canada”, but I was scared to stay up alone.  It was a challenge to try and get my mom to stay up with me, or the other option, to get so engrossed in the game that I would forget about those fears and watch the game to the end.  I somehow managed to watch most of the games from start to finish.

It didn’t take me long to be consumed by the competitive elements of sports viewing.  The team to cheer for in those days was clearly — at least to me —  the upstart Edmonton Oilers.  They were trying to dethrone the New York Islanders after they went for an epic run coined “The Drive For Five”.  At a very young age, I became one of those “homer” fans that watched hockey games to see their team win.  The Oilers were MY TEAM and their most intense player wore jersey No. 11.

The guy that looked like he would do anything to win

From his stoic stare to the reckless abandon he played with, Mark Messier just looked like the player that would do anything to win.  He definitely played second fiddle to Wayne Gretzky in the early parts of the Oiler’s dynasty, but that just made him more intriguing.  Gretzky had a skill set that made everything look effortless.  He didn’t show (nor did he need to) the same grit and intensity on the ice.  I think this is why I gravitated towards Messier and not Gretzky as my childhood hero.

The Oilers became Messier’s team

In 1988, Wayne Gretzky was traded to the L.A. Kings.  The sports world was stunned.  The trade is commonly referred to as a turning point for sports.  Player trades suddenly became business decisions.  With the Gretzky trade, the era of treating superstars as disposable assets had arrived.

With Gretzky leaving for Los Angeles, Messier was clear to build his legacy as one of sport’s fiercest competitors.  Two years later, he won the Hart Trophy and led the Oilers to the Stanley Cup.  Messier had moved away from Gretzky’s shadow.

Two years later, Messier had a dispute with Oilers management (over salary issues and the loss of key players such as Adam Graves) and demanded a trade.  He was moved to the New York Rangers, a team that had not won a title since 1940.  Messier was brought in to put an end to the Ranger’s painful Stanley Cup drought.

A rough start as a Ranger

Messier’s first two seasons with the New York Rangers had their share of ups and downs.  He won his 2nd career Hart Trophy in 1991-92 and led the Rangers to the top of the regular season standings.   The Messier led Rangers looked poised to break through and win their first championship since 1940.  Those plans came to an abrupt end.   They lost in the 2nd round of those playoffs to the Mario Lemieux led Pittsburgh Penguins.  The following season, the team suffered a rash of injuries and failed to make the playoffs.  Messier was relegated to watching the post season for the first time in his lustrous career.

The coming of the Messiah

Broadway was in a state of panic.  The Rangers decided to hire head coach Mike Keenan prior to the 1994 season.  They had a strong campaign and won another President’s Trophy as the league’s top regular season team.  The Rangers were a contender again and all eyes were on their captain.  Could Messier finally lead them to the Promised Land?

Things went well in the first two rounds of the playoffs as they breezed through the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals.  In the Eastern Conference finals against their Hudson River rival New Jersey Devils things took a turn for the worse.  The Rangers fell behind 3 games to 2 in the best of seven series.  They were back on their heels and were facing elimination.  Then, Messier decided to take matters into his own hands.

In a meeting with the press the day before game 6, Messier did the unthinkable; he told reporters that they would win the game.  Taking the pressure off his teammates and coaching staff, Messier risked his legacy as one of sports best leader of all-time.  If they win he is a hero, if they lose he loses a ton of credibility.  Here is a video of what happened next.

Your turn

Do you have any thoughts on the Messier’s prediction?  Want to share your favorite NHL moment?  Think the Rangers will win it all again this year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.





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