RYE, N.Y. — The real Ranger fans knew their hearts would be broken again. The Wall Street types in the expensive suits thought the game was over and were high-fiving each other, but the fans in the cheaper seats--no seats at Madison Square Garden are cheap--held back.
They were wondering what form the torture would take this time, how the defeat they saw coming would compare to all the other wounds they had suffered since the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup in 1940.
In Section 322, Anthony LaRe of Queens watched nervously as the clock reached the last minute of Friday's Eastern Conference playoff finale against the New Jersey Devils. "I'm still pessimistic we may not win," he said before the teams faced off with 18.6 seconds to play.
He was almost right. The Devils pulled even with 7.7 seconds left. LaRe slumped in his seat, his face pale. "You can't just think this team is going to win," he said. "Every year, it's something."
Although the Rangers won in double overtime Friday and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, New York fans remain wary. They've seen this before, and it didn't have a happy ending.
They remember 1972, when center Jean Ratelle, who was leading the NHL in scoring, broke his ankle when he was struck by a Dale Rolfe slap shot. They saw Brad Park hurt his knee in 1971. And they saw goaltender John Davidson carry the Rangers past the Islanders in the 1979 semifinals, only to injure his knee and flame out in a five-game loss to Montreal in the finals.
Fans fear this is the biggest tease yet. They expect the Rangers, who had the NHL's best record this season (52-24-8), will lose the Cup to the Vancouver Canucks, who were 14th, at 41-40-3. Cub fans know the feeling. Red Sox fans understand. Whose twisted knee will cause the cruel twist of fate this spring?
"We know the fans have been through a lot of agony," Ranger right wing Joe Kocur said. "(The semifinal series) was a big win, but 1940 will not be put to rest until we win the big one."
Said General Manager Neil Smith: "The ghosts and goblins won't really be gone until we win four more games."
Every Ranger general manager since 1940 has ignored the club's hexed past, but Smith confronted it. Among his first moves when he took over in 1989 was to commission rings for the seven survivors of the 1940 team. He also bought a tattered jersey worn that season by Art Coulter and displayed it in his office. He opened the door to the closet where the ghosts were confined, daring them to haunt again.
"I'd have a hard time going on if I really felt that the Rangers can't win because of a curse," Smith said.
Still, they have endured so much misfortune, how can it be anything else?
The Rangers were a power in the NHL's early years, winning the Cup in 1928, 1933 and 1940. World War II broke up the 1940 team, and the Rangers didn't get back to the finals until 1950. Forced to play home games in Toronto when the circus occupied the Garden, they lost a seven-game series to the Detroit Red Wings.
There were Ratelle's broken ankle, Vic Hadfield's broken thumb in 1973, and the Flyers' Dave Schultz pummeling Rolfe and the Rangers into submission in 1974. In 1979, slick Swedish forward Ulf Nilsson got the worst of a check from the Islanders' Denis Potvin, and his knees were never the same.
The curse lived on into the '90s. In 1993, All-Star defenseman Brian Leetch broke his ankle when he slipped on a patch of ice outside his Manhattan apartment. Without him, the Rangers, who had compiled the NHL's best record in 1992, missed the playoffs.
Coach Mike Keenan, completing his first season in New York, knows he must erase the perception of the Rangers as losers. "It's been an interesting part of the opportunity here," Keenan said Sunday after his team practiced at Rye Playland for Tuesday's Cup opener. "We can't deal with the paranoia of what surrounds the team about 1940 except by winning."
Even if they do win, their triumph will be tinged with tragedy.
When Cecile Saidel, co-founder of the Rangers' Fan Club, missed a playoff game against the Capitals, her friends knew something was terribly wrong. A week later, police discovered her body crammed beneath the stairs of her Bronx apartment building. Saidel, 67, had gone to feed a neighbor's cats and caught the neighbor's boyfriend using drugs. After she threatened to call the police, the boyfriend apparently strangled her.
When she was found, she was wearing a gray Ranger sweat shirt.