Never in the course of hockey history has a team owed so much to one player and his one utterance — “I guarantee a victory”.
Mark Messier was THE man and the Rangers team he captained in the 1993-94 season was teetering on the brink of playoff-elimination prior to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Final round.
An upstart New Jersey Devils squad hardly was given a chance to defeat a team that not only had won the President’s Trophy for most points in the regular season, but also was considered an odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Once Neil Smith had executed the deal that brought Kevin Lowe and assorted other Oilers to Manhattan, there was a rare feeling of championship-caliber players on the team, which of course was led by their former Oilers leader, Messier.)
Add to that the fact that the Broadway Blueshirts had won all six of the games played with the Devils during the regular campaign.
However, New Jersey captain Scott Stevens offered a veto: “That was one season and this is a new one.”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: If nothing else, the law of averages suggested that the Devils would at least win one game, but anything more than that was considered out of the question.)
Sure enough, the Devils’ captain had it right. In Game 1 at The Garden, the Devils rallied in the final minute to tie the game and won it after 35:18 of sudden death on Stephane Richer flip over Mike Richter, as the Rangers’ goalie attempted his poke-check.
New Jersey’s 4-3 triumph served notice that this was going to be a major challenge for the Rangers. And nobody was more aware of that than New York’s head coach, Mike Keenan. Not that the Rangers needed any prodding, since they scored an early goal in Game 2 at The Garden, made it holed up into the third period, and scored three more for an emphatic 4-0 decision.
Infused with confidence, Messier and his mates soared ahead in the series by taking Game 3, thanks to Stephane Matteau’s sudden-death goal at 26:13 of overtime. It marked the first time that either the media or fans took notice of the tall French-Canadian who later would be the talk of New York.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: At this point, the Rangers were playing according to form, and Matteau’s game-winner suddenly caused everyone to take a second look at his possibilities of being a hero yet again. It appeared that the Rangers would continue steamrolling at The Garden.)
Totally unfazed, the Devils knotted the series in New Jersey, and then deflated the Rangers at The Garden in a game which they led 4-0 until late in the third period.
New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire was pushing all the right buttons, both strategically and psychologically. Lemaire even castigated the press for focusing on New York’s front office turmoil rather than his Devils.
“I want my players to get the recognition they deserve,” he said. “They never get the credit [from the media] when they win. Our guys deserve more when you consider what they achieved.”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was doing the Devils telecast for SportsChannel, and we had come to love Jacques for his wisdom and wit. He certainly meant what he said about his players not getting recognized, and it only served to give the Devils even more motivation as they approached what could have been the series-clinching game.)
Having said that, he turned his attention to Game 6, Wednesday, May 25, 1994 at The Meadowlands.
On the Rangers’ side, there was a mixture of intense concern, yet players secure in the knowledge that they had the better team. But they needed more than that. And that’s where The Captain came through.
Following a Rangers practice in Rye, New York on May 24th, 1994, Messier met the media.
“There might have been 15 people around him in a semicircle,” said Mark Everson, the Rangers’ beat writer for the New York Post. “A few cameras. Everyone was waiting for him to come out and talk. It seemed normal enough. Another day in the series. He came out and I just asked him, ‘Well, Mark, what has to happen here?’”
Then, Messier delivered two little words that would explode into a legendary quote: “We’ll win.”
MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: As a longtime print journalist, I suspected that Everson had planted the “Guarantee” with a “Can’t-Miss” question. But it really didn’t matter because the series hype was developing a remarkable crescendo, and that was multiplied when the papers came out the following day.)
The “Guarantee” struck The Captain’s teammates in an assortment of ways. In the book, Battle on the Hudson: The Devils, the Rangers, and the NHL’s Greatest Series Ever, by Tim Sullivan, Nick Kypreos of that Blueshirt team summed up Messier’s impact thusly: “To know the person that [Mark Messier] is and how he conducts himself on a daily basis, it’s not just The Guarantee, it was everything he said from the beginning of the season. He made us feel like every night was a guarantee. If we came to work hard, paid the price, took care of ourselves, then there would be many nights where we’d win. We believed him. We believed in how he believed in us. He was our leader. He was the guy we leaned on the most.”
In this case what really mattered was the manner in which the press would handle Messier’s vow. Not surprisingly, the sensation-oriented Post featured Messier with a story across the back page: “Captain Courageous’ bold prediction: WE’LL WIN TONIGHT.”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: When I saw the headline — remember I was doing the Devils side — I shuddered. I had known Mark since his rookie year, and I was aware that if anybody could turn a comment into a win, he was the guy. It didn’t matter whether Everson had contrived it or not. I really was worried.)
Now it was time for Messier to turn his words into action. Game 6 was a contest filled with amazing twists and turns but one with a single constant; excitement throughout.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: What nobody knows is that two hours before the game, Rangers press agent Barry Watkins approached me and said that Keenan wanted to see me alone in an empty dressing room next to our studio. I couldn’t imagine what this was all about, since it was totally unprecedented. But I had been pals with Keenan ever since he visited my ailing son, Simon, in the hospital when the 15-year-old was awaiting a heart transplant. I met Keenan one-on-one and he started off by ranting about the officiating, as if I could do anything about that. Then he went off on tangents, and I surmised that the purpose of this was simply for him to let off steam before the most important came of his coaching life. I spent the next 15 minutes nodding and listening to the filibuster. I never experienced anything like that before or since — and doubt that I ever will.)
The capacity crowd of 19,040 was treated to a first period which was dominated by the home club. New Jersey exited with a 2-0 lead on goals by Scott Niedermayer and Claude Lemieux.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was in the corridor as the Rangers came off the ice, and everybody seemed dispirited except Messier, and it was at this point that I felt something electrifying was going to happen, and it wasn’t going to be because of the team I was broadcasting for; it was the Blueshirts.)
Every aspect of Lemaire’s game plan was working, a fact not overlooked by the New Yorkers. They were a dispirited lot heading to their dressing room and it was reflected in the first half of the second period. Wave after wave of Devils poured through the Rangers’ defensive lines hurling innumerable volleys at Richter. The third — and very likely series-crushing — goal appeared imminent. But, alas, it never came.
Still, if New Jersey could carry a two-goal lead to the dressing room with 20 minutes remaining, it was a desirable scenario. However, one mix-up allowed Alexei Kovalev a bit of skating room and the sharpshooting Ranger rifled a shot past Brodeur. Instead of a three-goal cushion, the Devils had to contend with a fragile one-goal lead going into the third period.
The melodrama unfolding on the ice was equaled in the corridors of Brendan Byrne Arena as well.
For example, at the end of the first period, the Rangers trooped into their dressing room apparently defeated, until Messier rallied the troops. Conversely, at the end of the second stanza,
Bernie Nicholls appeared on television and conceded that his club appeared tired. Those who saw the interview believed that Bernie was virtually admitting defeat.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was the one who interviewed Bernie Nicholls in between periods on the SportsChannel telecast, and I sensed that disaster was ahead. It was not only how he was sweating and talking, but all of his body language signaled defeated. Once he left the studio I turned to a colleague and said, ‘It doesn’t look good.’)
If there was any doubt about the pendulum swinging, it was provided in the third period — by Messier himself, who not only delivered on his guarantee, but personally produced a hat trick, including the game-sealing open net goal for a 4-2 New York triumph.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Of course we didn’t know it at the time — there was still another game to be played — but no one in the Devils camp felt particularly confidenXt, but some of us already felt that we were seeing what could be — and what was touted later — as the NHL’s greatest series ever. Or as I like to put it, having seen my first hockey game at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Street, I can assure you that I have witnessed many playoff gems. But this 1994 best-of-seven was one for the ages.)