It was the kind of gaudy excess that New York does best. Opening night of the NHL's 1994-95 season rolled around last Friday, 15 weeks late because of the lockout, and nowhere was it celebrated as it was at Madison Square Garden. Amid lasers and artificial fog, the Stanley Cup was lowered from the rafters. Finally, climactically, the NEW YORK RANGERS 1993-94 STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS banner was raised.
The belated Garden party did double duty as a rite of succession: It served official notice that the Rangers, who went 54 years between Cups, have not only ascended to the championship throne they coveted for so long, but they have also passed their crown as the NHL's Kings of Futility to another Original Six team. Even as the gonfalon was hoisted in New York, the lights were being dimmed in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, where 19,875 forgiving fans cheered a video that exalted the proud tradition of the Red Wings. Of course the most inspiring footage was in black and white, and many of the featured heroes were deceased. None of the club's seven Stanley Cups has been won since 1955, so the Red Wings' 40-year dry spell now reigns supreme. Say hello to the New Rangers.
It was fitting that the first Red Wing to take the ice during player introductions Friday night was the club's new goalie, Mike Vernon, whose slightness of stature was mercilessly illuminated by four spotlights. Vernon, at 5'8" the shortest member of the team, is the Red Wing who must come up biggest in this sawed-off season if Detroit is to end its Stanley Cup drought.
After spending his 11-year NHL career with the Calgary Flames, the 31-year-old Vernon was solid in his Motown debut, stopping 20 of 21 shots in the Red Wings' 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. It bothered Detroit coach Scotty Bowman not a bit that only a handful of those saves were anything special—this, in fact, seemed to tickle the baby-faced, 61-year-old autocrat. Dutifully, obediently, the Red Wings had stuck closely to the new defensive system Bowman and his staff had installed in the off-season. Bowman was less excited by the scintillating midseason form displayed by defenseman Paul Coffey and center Steve Yzerman than he was by the fact that his team, which includes five new faces, had not given up a single outnumbered rush.
Once the slew of reporters had cleared out of his office after the game and Bowman could commence an attack on the sausage pizza on his desk, he evinced, between bites, an optimism that for him bordered on giddiness. "I thought the new guys fit in perfectly." he said. "I felt more comfortable in this game than I did in any game last year."
Bowman's first season in Detroit began turbulently—he butted heads frequently with then general manager Bryan Murray—and ended in shocking fashion, with a 3-2 home loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7 of their quarterfinal playoff series last April. Even a rosterful of All-Stars, including Coffey, Yzerman and Hart Trophy winner Sergei Fedorov, was not enough to prevent the league's preeminent postseason gagmeisters from making their third first-round playoff exit in four years.
The most memorable vignette from Detroit's '93-94 season was provided by rookie goaltender Chris Osgood, who sat sobbing in his stall after the Shark debacle. "If I could just find a way so that this thing doesn't ruin me," he said. "I'm still young. I wasn't supposed to be here this season."
The 22-year-old had indeed been thrown into the fire, due in part to a bad decision by Murray. In Murray's quest for a goaltender who could carry the Wings to the Cup, he had guessed wrong, trading for Bob Essensa of the Winnipeg Jets last March, a miscalculation that would cost Murray his job. Essensa was a sore disappointment in the regular season, and after allowing two brutal goals in Game 1 against the Sharks, Bowman yanked him and went with Osgood the rest of the way.
As the rookie wept last April, Yzerman, the captain, stood grimly by the water fountain. There seemed to be a trace of masochism in his voice when he said, "We failed again, and we need to accept the consequences."
Those consequences arrived five weeks later, on June 4, when team owner and pizza shogun Mike Ilitch fired Murray. Then, on June 24, Ilitch made Bowman director of player personnel. Having consolidated power. Bowman wasted little time exercising it. Five days later he traded defenseman Steve Chiasson for Vernon, who is backed up this season by Osgood. The makeover had begun.