Entering the summer of 1996, the New York Rangers were a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Only two years removed from their ride down the Canyon of Heroes, the Rangers still had many of the pieces from that 1994 Stanley Cup Championship team. Just like in 1994, when Rangers’ President and General Manager Neil Smith added many former Edmonton Oilers to the roster, his major acquisition of the summer was the signing of the ultimate former Oiler, Wayne Gretzky.
Gretzky’s arrival in New York reunited him with Rangers’ captain Mark Messier. The reunion of the two legends became the talk of New York, and the hockey world. The duo was featured in multiple commercials advertising the ‘NHL on Fox’, appeared on the ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Although Gretzky is recognized as the greatest hockey player to have ever played, his star power didn’t overshadow that of Messier’s in New York. The Rangers’ captain had reached legendary status in the Big Apple after the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, and after he was nominated for the Hart Trophy in 1995-96, New York was still Messier’s town.
Messier and Gretzky were the headline attraction on Broadway, but they were by no means the only stars. The Rangers also had Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves. All three were key contributors for the Rangers in 1994 and still at the top of their game. In the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, Team USA beat Team Canada in a best-of-three Final (Leetch and Richter played for Team USA, Messier, Gretzky, and Graves played for Canada). Leetch served as USA’s captain and Richter was named MVP of the tournament. In addition to the superstars, the Rangers’ opening night roster also included players such as Luc Robitaille, Alexei Kovalev, Jeff Beukeboom, and Ulf Samuelsson.
Despite the hype surrounding the team, the Rangers stumbled out of the gates. The Rangers went 9-13-4 during the first two months of the season. After losing the first three games on a five-game trip to the west coast, there was speculation that head coach Colin Campbell would be fired before the Rangers returned home. However, Messier saved Campbell’s job, and the Rangers’ season. Messier scored all three goals in a 3-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes, and then added another two the next night in a 5-2 win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche. The end of the Rangers’ road trip kicked off a 15-3-1 stretch that extended into January of 1997.
After the all-star break, the Rangers began to tailspin. Kovalev tore his ACL and was forced to miss the remainder of the season. In an attempt to add scoring, Smith traded Sergei Nemchinov and Brian Noonan to the Vancouver Canucks for Russ Courtnall and Esa Tikkanen, who was another former Oiler and had won the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994. The Rangers played .500 hockey from January until the end of the regular season, and finished with a 38-34-10 record, good enough for 5th in the Eastern Conference.
Gretzky’s first season in New York was a major success. After splitting the season prior between Los Angeles and St. Louis, ‘The Great One’ was comfortable being just “one of the guys” in the locker room and playing on the 2nd line behind Messier. Gretzky finished 4th in the league in scoring with 97 points, and tied Messier’s record for most assists in a season by a Rangers center with 72. Messier led the team with 36 goals and Leetch recorded 78 points and would ultimately win his second Norris Trophy.
In the playoffs, the Rangers’ first round matchup was against the Florida Panthers, who had reached the Stanley Cup Finals the year prior. The teams traded 3-0 shutouts in Florida before returning to New York for Game 3. Trailing 3-2 in the final minute, Robitaille scored with 18.9 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime. In the extra session, Tikkanen rifled a slap shot past Panthers’ goalie John Vanbiesbrouck that hit the back bar inside the net. The goal needed to be reviewed, but the Rangers came away with the win and series lead. Game 4 was arguably Gretzky’s best game in his three years as a Ranger. In the second period, Gretzky recorded a natural hat trick, and the 3-2 win gave the Rangers a 3-1 series lead. In Game 5 in Florida, Messier scored two goals, and set up Tikkanen’s series-clinching goal in overtime.
The Rangers’ second round opponent was the New Jersey Devils. As was the case in the first round, the Rangers traded shutouts with the Devils in the first two games in New Jersey. The story of the series was Richter, who was impenetrable against a barrage of Devils shots. The Rangers won both games at Madison Square Garden, and then won the series in Game 5 at New Jersey, as Adam Graves scored on a wrap-around goal that reminded many of Stephane Matteau’s series-clinching goal against the Devils in 1994. Richter allowed just five goals in the five-game series, and had a save percentage of .973.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Rangers squared off against the Philadelphia Flyers. After losing Game 1 in Philadelphia, the Rangers pulled out a 5-4 win in Game 2, with Gretzky recording his second hat trick of the playoffs. However, the win came at a price. With the Rangers already depleted by injuries, Leetch had tendons in his wrist damaged from a hit by the Flyers’ Trent Klatt. Although Leetch continued to play, the Rangers’ defenseman was a shell of himself during the rest of the series. Back in New York, the Rangers lost a wild Game 3, 6-3, as seven goals were scored in the third period. Game 4 had another crazy finish, as three goals were scored in the final three minutes of the game. Unfortunately for the Rangers, it was Eric Lindros’ power play goal with 6.8 seconds remaining that gave the Flyers the win and a 3-1 series lead. Back in Philadelphia, the Flyers closed out the Rangers season with a 4-2 win.
Although the Rangers didn’t come away with a Stanley Cup or an appearance in the Finals in 1996-97, the season was memorable in many ways. It was memorable for everything that happened throughout the season, and for how everything changed in the immediate aftermath. After a contract dispute with management, Messier signed with the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent. Although Gretzky played for two more seasons, the Rangers missed the playoffs in both seasons, leading ‘The Great One’ to retire after twenty NHL seasons.
The Rangers’ struggles continued in the wake of Gretzky’s departure. They didn’t return to the playoffs until the 2005-06 season. Since the lockout, the Rangers have made the playoffs in six out of seven seasons, but it hasn’t been the same. Even as the Rangers won the Atlantic Division in 2011-12 and reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since that 1996-97 season, it took an extended playoff run just to grab some attention in the New York spotlight.
The Rangers are one of the Original Six, and they have a strong core fan base. However, they still haven’t been able to recreate what put them at the center of sports in the New York Metropolitan area in 1996-97. In the big picture that is the New York sports scene, they aren’t as relevant as some of the other teams that also play in the Big Apple.