Indeed, to stand in the New York dressing room and read the names over the stalls causes one to wonder how the Rangers ever lose a game. Seven of their 20 regulars have played in an All-Star Game. They are a veteran team that was put together with another championship or two in mind. The '94 Cup may have been one of the most dramatic in league history, but without another title to go with it, the Messier era would be plagued with an undeniable void. "Just look at their roster," says Harry Sinden, president of the Bruins. "They're as good as they were last year. I'll tell you what: If they get in the playoffs—even if they finish eighth—they'll be the favorite."
The Rangers had lost four straight games when Smith acquired 30-year-old right wing Pat Verbeek on March 23 from the Whalers for two players and two draft picks. Smith thought Verbeek was the ideal addition to his underachieving team—tough and relentless, with a proven ability to score. At week's end Verbeek had seven goals since the trade. But after 12 years in the NHL and only four trips to the playoffs, Verbeek couldn't be blamed if he felt cursed. He finally escaped the inept Whalers and joined the world champs, and here he is again, right alongside his old pals on Hartford, fighting to make the playoffs.
"But this isn't like some places where guys get down on themselves and everyone starts worrying if you can turn it around," he says. "No one here blames anyone else. It's really been an enjoyable experience for me."
The Rangers would like to turn this season around for a number of reasons. The list begins with the name of the man behind the bench. Rookie coach Colin Campbell is the guy who replaced the disliked and dictatorial Keenan, which makes him a hero to most people in the Ranger dressing room. Players often say they would like to win for their coach. The Rangers mean it. They call him Colic or Soupy, and they genuinely like him. "He's a good person and a good coach, and how can you not pull for a guy like that?" says defenseman Kevin Lowe, who played with Campbell in Edmonton in '79-80.
To many people in the New York organization, winning the Cup caused mixed emotions: They were thrilled to get rings, but they cringe when they hear all the credit that goes to Keenan. The team barely slipped past the New Jersey Devils and the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup semifinals and finals, respectively, and now some observers prefer to say that Keenan drove them like a steamroller through the playoffs.
"Only the players in this room and the people in this organization realize how close the whole thing was to blowing up in [Keenan's face] last year," says Healy. "It's not only unfair to say that this wouldn't have happened if Mike hadn't left, it's wrong. We might have been worse if he hadn't left. With his antics, who knows where we'd be now?"
After leading the Rangers into history, Keenan left New York in a hurry. He signed a reported six-year, $12 million deal with the St. Louis Blues in July, a contract that no one in New York expects him to complete. "You've got to understand one thing about Mike," says one Ranger. "He comes with an expiration date."
When Keenan departed, Campbell stepped out onto the high wire without a net. His captain, Messier, held out during training camp in a contract dispute, and then the owners locked out the players. When the two sides finally came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement in January, Campbell had a short season and a difficult act to follow. It took the Rangers 54 years to win the Cup. Campbell had three months to repeat.
For the most part, Campbell has escaped the wrath of the New York media and of the boo-birds in the Garden's cheap seats. An occasional shut-in will call a sports talk show and accuse him of taking the players to Chuck E. Cheese when they should be practicing, but the general feeling is that the 42-year-old Campbell, who had been an assistant coach for nearly 10 years, has earned this chance.
"The biggest myth in New York right now is that Colie is not tough enough," says Smith. "He played 11 years in the NHL when you had to light even night. He's as tough as they come. The difference between Colie and Mike is that Colie treats the players like people. He knows he's not dealing with circus bears. The problem with the crazy talk-show callers is that they can't seem to fathom that the fault could lie with their darling superstars."