In their long and storied 90 year history, the New York Rangers have won the Stanley Cup just four times, and just once since 1940. Still, the fans of this Original Six NHL team are as faithful as any you’ll meet, and they cling to the bright spots in decades of letdown, not the least of which is that they currently and have always played in the middle of the greatest city in the world.
And sure, they did win the Stanley Cup in 1994, which, depending on your age could sort of be considered recent memory. But for most of us, the chants of “1940” still ring in our heads as a stark reminder of just how much the Broadway Blueshirts have put us through over the years.
Big and Bold Beginnings
The National Hockey League was just ten years old in 1926 when New York fight promoter Tex Rickard brought a second New York team into it. The first, the New York Americans, was just a year old, and Rickard felt like Madison Square Garden could serve as home to two teams. Called Tex’s Rangers, or just the Rangers, they were an immediate success, winning the American Division title in that inaugural 1926-27 season.
The following year, the team won the Stanley Cup, an unheard of achievement for such a young team. Then, in 1933, they won it again, and of course, they won it a third time in 1940. When the New York Americans franchise fizzled out in 1942, the Rangers were poised to capture the hearts of Big Apple sports fans with lots of goals, hits, and of course, Stanley Cup wins. But much to the city’s chagrin, that wouldn’t happen again for more than 50 years.
It’s the Only Thing
The famous Vince Lombardi line always applies, no matter what sort of competition is taking place: “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing.” The Rangers may have won their fair share of games between 1940 and 1994, and they certainly kept a few postseason stretches interesting, but as for winning it all, well, it just didn’t happen. Still, the excitement of playing in New York, the talented and flashy players that came through the organization, and the undying dedication of generations of fans was there throughout.
After they brought home the Cup in 1940, the team completely imploded for the rest of the decade, missing the playoffs more than they made them and getting blown out in many losses. There were superstars like winger Andy Bathgate in the 1950s and 1960s, and forward Rod Gilbert and goalie Eddie Giacomin in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but for the most part, those years in Rangers history were a litany of losses followed by an extended golf season.
The 1970s were a bit more optimistic, though. The team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1972, led predominantly by their GAG, or goal a game, line of Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, and Vic Hadfield. Still, they couldn’t get past the dominant Boston Bruins, and they were done in six games. Again in 1979, the team played for the Cup, but lasted just five games against the Montreal Canadiens in the finals.
The Island Dynasty and Finally, a Win
The 1980s were especially frustrating for Rangers fans because in addition to the team’s habit of generating disappointment, there was another New York NHL team — and they were a heck of a lot better than the skaters at MSG. The Islanders got started out at Nassau Coliseum in 1972, and by 1980, they were on the brink of a dynasty. They won four consecutive Stanley Cups, and their fans loved to taunt the Rangers with loud chants of “1940” whenever the two teams would meet. The Rangers did make it to the playoffs more often than not in the 1980s, but they never advanced past the conference finals. Fans and players alike had years of frustrating summers.
But by the early 1990s, things seemed to be turning around slowly but surely. The team was quickly eliminated from the playoffs in 1992, but not before posting the best record in the entire league for the regular season. And, with defenseman Brian Leetch coming into his prime and the recent acquisitions of Mark Messier and Adam Graves, the Rangers were suddenly contenders.
“This one will last a lifetime,” Rangers TV announcer Sam Rosen shouted when the clock ran out in game seven of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs. Finally, after 54 years, the New York Rangers had brought a big win back to the Big Apple, and every Rangers fan who witnessed it can tell you exactly where they were when the gloves flew in celebration and Mark Messier bobbed his head in maniacal laughter as he grabbed the Cup for the first time in generations. And while some critics and cynics complained that the 1994 Rangers was just a rehashed version of the Edmonton Oilers that dominated in the late 1980s, Rangers fans didn’t care. Finally, the curse was broken, and the wait was over.
The Grisly Aftermath
The 1994 team was so good, so dominant, that Rangers fans dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, they could win the Cup again. But the following season was shortened by a lockout, and the team barely made the playoffs. In 1996, the team signed the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, and even though he was really in the twilight of his career, he still helped the team make it to the conference finals the following year. (They lost, of course.)
The King, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, made his NHL debut with the Rangers in 2005, and he would be the true backbone of the team for the next ten years. Largely on the strength of his ability to shut down the opposing team’s offensive efforts, the Rangers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals again in 2014, but lost to the Los Angeles Kings. Still, Lundqvist is currently the winningest goalie in Rangers history and recently won his 400th game.
The Perks of Being a Rangers Fan
Playing hockey in the greatest city in the world carries some pretty amazing intangibles that just add to the fun of being a Rangers fan. For starters, the team plays in Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena in the heart of midtown Manhattan. The fans sing the Rangers goal scoring song when the team nets one, Dancing Larry gets the crowd worked up, and even though he’s been retired for a while, chants of “Potvin sucks” still come up from time to time. The infamous blue seats in MSG are no longer blue (and they haven’t been for a while), but that upper tier at the arena is still where the most hardcore fans sit. You can’t call them the cheap seats, though, because nothing in New York City is cheap. Broadcasting veteran Marv Albert’s son now does the team’s radio play by play, but fans still use the phrase “kick save and a beauty” like it’s the 1970s.
One of the more fun intersections of Rangers hockey and popular culture happened in 1979, when team greats Ron Duguay, Phil Esposito, Dave Maloney, and Anders Hedberg (and later Ron Greschner) starred in an awkwardly awesome Sasson jeans commercial. The players skated with jeans and jerseys singing the brand’s famous “Ooh la la Sasson” refrain, and while it might have helped to sell some pants, it didn’t help with the team’s performance on the ice. Eventually, Rangers fans flipped it and sang “Ooh la la you suck” on a regular basis.
What’s next for the New York Rangers? They’re currently one of 30 NHL teams, and while they’ve been playing very well in recent years, they have a lousy pattern of losing momentum right when they need it the most. Will we see another Stanley Cup in MSG in our lifetimes? Will King Henrik get his ring before he retires? The team’s history always suggests heartbreak and disappointment, but if there’s one thing Rangers fans have learned, it’s that patience gets rewarded. It may take a few generations and a lot of taunting, but the team wins eventually.
Photo: “Wayne Gretzky New York Rangers” by Håkan Dahlström is licensed under CC BY 2.0