The 1994 Rangers hold a unique place in the hearts of New York fans. It's still the franchise's only Stanley Cup since 1940 and it was also an incredible soap opera that played out with a public audience. During the latest episode of the "New York Accent" podcast with Damon Amendolara, former Rangers general manager Neil Smith told the in-depth story of the iconic championship team.
"I'm so surprised they haven't made a movie out of '94," Smith said.
How often does a Cup-winning coach bolt the franchise within weeks? Smith believes he and coach Mike Keenan, who resigned in July 1994, had different definitions of loyalty. By the beginning of the 1994-95 campaign, Keenan was both the general manager and head coach of the Blues.
"Keenan was only out for Keenan," Smith explained. "Mike is such a different bird. If Colin Campbell had done that, I would've really been hurt. If it'd been Roger Nielsen who'd done that? But Mike Keenan wanted to go be a general manager someplace and get more money.
"At that time in his life, and I don't know what he's like now, there wasn't any feeling of, 'I want to stay here, be the guy who won the Cup for the Rangers and stay with them as long as I can.' From 1989 on, I only wanted to be with the Rangers. To this day, I can say 23 years later after leaving the Rangers, I never would've left the Rangers, ever."
The relationship between the Rangers' general manager and head coach was strained just months into their marriage, when Keenan wanted to trade two of the franchise's best players. Consequently, it created the riskiest -- and most famous -- trade deadline in Rangers history.
"I was really having my hand forced in some ways by Keenan," Smith revealed. I want to clarify something: Mike didn't push for players he wanted, but he did push for players that he didn't think he could win with. There is a tremendous number of Mike Gartner fans out there, including myself. Mike and his family are dear to me. But Mike Keenan didn't feel that way about him.
"Mike Keenan wanted me to trade Tony Amonte for Stephen Matteau. I said, 'There's no way I'll do that. Amonte is going to be a star in the league.' Mike didn't think so. Ultimately, the Blackhawks had to also include Brian Noonan to get the deal done. I never liked that trade. I like that we won the Cup and we wouldn't have won without both of those guys. But, I don't like the trade as a talent scout." Amonte went on to play 16 seasons as a five-time All-Star.
The 1994 Cup win was the Rangers' high point. The team couldn't match that success in the coming years, and after a run to the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals, the final gut punch occurred. Mark Messier, the heart of the Rangers, signed with the Canucks in free agency. Madison Square Garden ownership chose not to match Vancouver's offer. and Smith was painted as the villain.
"I feel a lot of gratitude for what [Messier] had done for the franchise," Smith said. "But, I was now positioned, even by him, as the bad guy. Which wasn't really true... but what can I do? I can't throw owners under the bus. I sort of got to take the heat. But it wasn't my decision to let him go.
"Some fans who don't read deep into this stuff will say, 'You let Messier go.' Well, no, I didn't let him go -- he decided to go to Vancouver because there was more money there. That really was hurtful at that time because, again, it all was forgotten at that time, about the fact that I traded for him... I made all these other good moves, but now you're the village idiot for letting him go."
Their relationship was icy for years, but Smith recently sent a note to Messier. For the first time publicly, he told the story of the letter and took ownership of the decision to let Messier leave for Vancouver during the 1997 offseason.
"I wish that [expletive] never would've happened," Smith admitted. "I probably should've pushed harder with owners. I didn't and I was wrong. I wish I had... "I told [Messier] that I blamed myself on that one. I should've tried harder and I should've pushed harder... I don't know what it would've cost me to do that. But I didn't and I'm sorry. I'm very sorry that ever happened. But again, there's only so much you can control in life."
The Rangers hired a new cut-throat coach before the 1993-94 campaign, and they cut ties with some of their most popular players during the season. They had to endure dramatics during the 1993-94 East Final and Cup Final to finally hoist that mythical championship.
Keenan, the self-serving coach, negotiated with other teams during the Final. The Rangers were sold just months later. And then the franchise's icon left in a contract dispute, marking one of the most controversial moves in New York sports history. Yeah, this seems like more than enough fodder for a fun ESPN '30 for 30' documentary.