Tears. That’s my first, fleeting memory as a New York Rangers fan. I was about to turn four years old, and the Rangers were getting blown out by the Colorado Avalanche. I could not tell you anything that happened during the game, except that it was ugly, and I was crying. A look back at game logs tells me that this game was February 3rd, 1996, and the Rangers lost, 7-1. The Rangers were a good team during the following 1996-1997 season, but I have no memories of that time; I was too young for anything to really register.
The late 90s were the first years I really understood what was going on, and it was not pretty. I don’t remember specific moments from those seasons, but I do remember understanding that the Rangers were not just bad. They were B-A-D. What sticks out most in my mind from that time is when Jaromir Jagr scored in overtime for the Penguins and, in my eyes, ruined Wayne Gretzky’s final game.
On March 13th, 2000, my father took me to Madison Square Garden for the first time as a birthday present. The Rangers blew a lead to the Dallas Stars and got beat by backup goaltender Manny Fernandez. Radek Dvorak missed a penalty shot.
The next summer, the Rangers signed Mark Messier, and it felt like everything would change. On multiple occasions throughout my early childhood, I had gone to Blockbuster and rented a video highlighting the 1994 season that ended The Curse. In my mind, it was like a mystical deity coming back to the Rangers. Everything would be fixed.
It was not fixed. Four more seasons transpired, with the Rangers missing the playoffs all four times. It felt like nothing went right the entire time. Mike Richter had his season – then career – ended with a series of devastating injuries. Top prospects were turned into Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure, who both played extremely well before being ruined by injuries. Top prospect Dan Blackburn, the future in goal, suffered a career ending injury in the weight room. Other lottery picks, like Manny Malhotra and Jamie Lundmark, did not develop. A whole slew of mercenaries underachieved. A number of coaches were shuffled out as quickly as they were brought in.
It did not help that I grew up in a town in North Jersey; Devils’ territory. I sat at home watching the Rangers’ biggest rival at the time make the Stanley Cup three times, and win twice. I watched the Rangers go 23 games against the Devils without a single win before finally breaking that streak in 2001. I would go into school and endure the banter, with absolutely no ammunition to throw back.
When I went to The Garden in 2004 days after the Rangers had purged the team of virtually all notable players, including Brian Leetch, and watched the Rangers give up seven goals to a terrible Penguins team, I remember feeling a sense of nihilism. The arena was comatose and destitute. As a 12-year-old, all I knew was an existence of sports futility. The Rangers are bad. The Devils are good. This was the order of universe, and I was going to live this existence perpetually. Like Charlie Brown having the football pulled out from under him.
In watching the fallout of the last few weeks and reactions to the news that the Rangers will pursue a rebuild, I have done a lot of thinking about where the team came from and where they are now. Around age seven or eight, I truly became a fan who watched every game with some understanding of what was going on. Any fans for whom that magical 2005-2006 season served as their orientation are now approaching their 21st birthdays. Not to mention all fans who are younger. The implication here is pretty incredible.
There is an entire generation of fans who, until this season, have gone their entire lives without knowing the Rangers as anything except a competitive hockey team.
This is a team that has made the playoffs 11 out of 12 seasons, while missing once on the final game of the season. They have been buyers at the trading deadline, in some capacity, every spring.
There have been some bland, mediocre teams dragged by Lundqvist and shootout specialists into a playoff spot. There are free agent signings that failed. There has been stagnation and lack of direction and disappointing ends to seasons. But I think about the truly ugly moments over this period; a blown 3-1 series lead against Washington in 2009; the Devils’ sweeping the Rangers in round one in 2006; a lifeless first round exit against Pittsburgh in 2016; Adam Henrique ending the 2012 season.
These were the worst experiences this new generation of fans have endured, and yet the adolescent version of myself would have given anything to experience just one of them.
Of course, there were also many great moments as well. Two finishes on top of the East, including a Presidents’ Trophy. Eleven playoff series won; one over the Devils, one over the Flyers, and
one two over the Penguins. Three trips to the Conference Final. A game won in the Stanley Cup Final on Garden ice. A nearly spotless record in Games Seven. Numerous incredible duals between the greatest goaltender (Lundqvist) and the greatest scorer (Ovechkin) of this era.
Brad Richards’ goal against Washington in the dying seconds to save the series. A number of dramatic overtime goals, including a Game Seven clincher from Derek Stepan. Martin St. Louis’ postseason of destiny. The Avery-Brodeur dramas.
Jaromir Jagr breaking Adam Graves’ single season goal record. Henrik Lundqvist breaking every record. Superstar seasons from Marian Gaborik and Rick Nash. A 4-0 record in outdoor games. Chris Kreider’s overnight transition from college athlete to key playoff contributor. Marek Malik’s shootout goal.
Yes, the Rangers fell short of the biggest goal; winning the Stanley Cup. Yes, there should be consternation about decisions that were made that caused them to fall short of this goal. Still, it was a hell of a run, and an exciting 12 years for Rangers fans. This is a fanbase that (justifiably) called for sweeping changes after a second-round playoff exit last season. It’s amazing in contrast to 2006, when the team got a standing ovation at The Garden that endured for minutes following the Devils’ first-round sweep of them.
While nobody wants their team to lose or be bad, there is an intrinsic duality to sports. There is purpose in struggle, and it takes some dark moments to truly appreciate when good ones come along. I appreciate this era of Rangers hockey that is coming to a close because I know what it is like to stare into the abyss. The Dark Ages, as the 1998-2004 era is labeled, is just one of many tough periods for fans far older than I am. Even if it’s for the greater good, the next few years of presumed losing might be particularly tough on the young generation of fans for whom this situation will be foreign. It is in the approaching growing pains that I believe these fans will discover this duality and come to understand how good they had it.
We measure our lives in relation to our experiences. When a long-tenured TV show is finally taken off air, or a celebrity passes away, or an athlete retires, we are sad about the situation. But we are also sad about it as a projection of ourselves. A part of us disappears as well. It’s why 90s themed events are so popular at bars and parties. It’s why people pack arenas to see a deteriorating Guns ‘N Roses group stumble through concerts. It’s why hockey fans cheer on Jaromir Jagr as he openly rebels against the sands of time. As long as those things are still alive, then those parts of us are still alive too, and we don’t have to confront the reality of life passing us.
General Manager Jeff Gorton could have merely traded players on expiring contracts and attempted a retool this summer. He could have clung to this era and tried to finagle another Stanley Cup run in the next few years. It would have come at the cost of delaying the inevitable and refusing to coming to grips with reality. The Detroit Red Wings and Edmonton Oilers recently have lived in denial of their plight, and they find themselves in a colossal hole that will require an incredible amount of cleaning up to correct. When the Rangers made the call to blow up the team and start from scratch in 2004, it was because they had exhausted every other option. Unlike last time around, where the decision was forced upon them, the Rangers are now making the call to rebuild on their own terms.
It’s the end of an era. As fans look back upon this period of transition, they will be thankful that the Rangers ended it with grace and dignity. Hopefully too, history will view it as the first meaningful step in the franchise’s pursuit of their fifth Stanley Cup.