Why does a Toronto native root for the New York Rangers, the original six franchise with the least number of Stanley Cups?
There’s countless reasons, but I’ll attempt to keep this brief.
Seven years before John Tavares signed with the Leafs and renewed Stanley Cup aspirations in Toronto, I recall being ecstatic upon hearing the news that high-priced free agent target Brad Richards had agreed to sign a nine-year, $60 million dollar contract with New York Rangers.
Richards embodied what I wanted in a first-line centre; tremendous vision, the ability to hit the 20-goal mark plateau, and less importantly, a left-handed shot. He spent only three seasons with the Rangers, but he helped lead the team to a Stanley Cup appearance in 2014, which saw the Los Angeles Kings win the cup in five games.
Despite having to buyout the rest of his contract the following offseason, the initial move of signing a veteran star to a long-term deal was a pretty typical decision for New York, unlike for most NHL teams. The Rangers are never afraid to take big swings in free agency, despite the fact that they’ve signed some of the worst contracts in NHL history.
My love for the Rangers is intertwined with my affinity for history. Mark Messier broke the team’s 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994; in the early ’90s, Alexei Kovalev wore white skates in a similar style to fellow Russian star Sergei Fedorov; not to mention New York was the last franchise that Wayne Gretzky played for.
The 1994 Stanley Cup winners even had a University of Toronto connection behind the bench with head coach Mike Keenan. A decade prior, Keenan led the Varsity Blues men’s hockey team to our most recent national championship.
Here’s a fun late ’90s story from Rangers lore that sums up the Blueshirts experience. Fittingly enough, it happened the year of my birth.
In July 1997, longtime Rangers captain Mark Messier — the greatest player in Rangers history — departed New York to join the Vancouver Canucks. His exit left a 36-year-old Gretzky as the team’s best centre.
Desperately in need of youth to play alongside Kovalev and ensure any possibility of contending for a Stanley Cup, the Rangers signed star Colorado Avalanche centre Joe Sakic to a three-year, $21 million USD offer sheet — a deal that would pay him a $15 million USD signing bonus up-front.
The Avalanche was a small-market team that could not financially compete with New York, and relied on a fortuitous outcome to ensure that Sakic wouldn’t play for the Rangers.
Then owned by Ascent Entertainment Group, the Avalanche fell back on on profits from the 1997 blockbuster Air Force One to sign Sakic; the team’s primary owner Charlie Lyons had produced the film with his production company Beacon Pictures.
To sum it all up, Harrison Ford prevented New York from solidifying their future.
And while it would’ve been cool to see Sakic in a Rangers uniform, 36-year-old Gretzky still managed to lead New York to 91 points, fifth-best in the league for the 1997–1998 season. It’s no wonder they call him ‘the Great One.’