NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- You don't end 54 years of misery with a rout. You end them with one last torturous march through history. You end them with a one-goal nail-biter in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.
The New York Rangers finally hoisted the Stanley Cup at Madison Square Garden last night, hoisted it for the first time since 1940, hoisted it with their rabid fans chanting and hugging and singing into the night.
The fans had to sit through 60 excruciating, exhilarating minutes before they could celebrate the Rangers' 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. And when the curse was finally lifted, the distractions of the final days seemed 54 years old.
Coach Mike Keenan and team captain Mark Messier engaged in a prolonged embrace at center ice -- two days before, it had been reported that Keenan had lost control of the team and Messier was in charge.
Moments later, Keenan stood on top of the Rangers' bench, holding the Cup high. Messier got it back and passed it to Neil Smith, the general manager who probably won't return if Keenan does.
All that was quickly forgotten.
The crowd chanted, "1940! 1940!"
"We're No. 1! We're No. 1"
And, finally, "1994! 1994!"
It was a wild, delirious scene, one that might alter the future of the NHL. The Rangers play in the critical New York market, and their incredible saga mesmerized a nation that paid little attention to hockey before.
Game 7 might ultimately be remembered as a turning point, much like the 1958 championship game between the Colts and Giants was a historic breakthrough for the NFL. This is an expanding league, an international league. Every night is the World Cup.
The Rangers feature an American goalie (Mike Richter) and the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP (Brian Leetch). They also will be the first team to engrave Russian names (Sergei Zubov and Alexei Kovalev) on the Stanley Cup.
The whole thing was so exciting, even President Clinton tuned in to ESPN. Who could remember the leader of the free world watching a hockey game? Or calling the playoff MVP to offer congratulations?
"I've been sitting here alone in the White House watching this, cheering for you, biting my fingernails, screaming and yelling," Clinton told Leetch. "It's been great. It was a wonderful game."
Leetch couldn't believe his ears.
"Was that Dana Carvey?" he asked.
And so it was, on the night the Rangers won the Cup. The Canucks kept getting chances in the third period, but never tied the score. Nathan Lafayette hit the post with 5:35 left. And Richter kept making big save after big save.
Vancouver pulled goalie Kirk McLean with one minute left, benefited from an icing call with 28.2 seconds left, attacked and attacked until the Rangers' Steve Larmer finally cleared the puck with 6.3 seconds remaining.
Several Rangers threw their sticks and gloves in the air, but the celebration was premature. Another icing was called with 1.6 seconds left. The crowd howled, "We want the Cup! We want the Cup!" And then, in a glorious instant, it was over.
The Canucks came that close to becoming the first team since 1942 to rally from a 3-1 deficit in the Stanley Cup finals. And the Rangers came that close to pulling one of the biggest chokes in the history of sports.
Their fans are happy now, but get ready for a hangover for the ages. The Rangers won the Cup, but lost their identity. Their futility defined them. Would the Red Sox be the Red Sox if not for the Curse of the Bambino and Bill Buckner?
Now, for the first time since Pearl Harbor, the Rangers are winners. Is there such a thing as post-traumatic victory syndrome? The foul-mouthed Rangers fans won't know what to do with themselves now that they can't point the finger at everyone but Lee Harvey Oswald.
There would have been plenty of villains: Keenan, the coach who took nearly a week to deny he was heading to the Detroit Red Wings; Smith, the GM who is engaged in a power struggle with Keenan; even Red Wings VP Jimmy Devellano, whom Keenan accused of planting the story to sabotage the Rangers.
The Keenan subplot will play out shortly, but it's not what people will remember. For the first time in recent memory, the Stanley Cup playoffs were more entertaining than the NBA's. And Rangers-mania focused attention on the sport like never before.
All the trauma, all the pain, all the agony -- it's gone. The back page of the Daily News yesterday featured a solitary picture of the Cup against a stark black background. Underneath the trophy, in white letters, was the word, "PLEASE!"
For the first time in 54 years, the Rangers obliged.
The curse is dead.
The longest current title droughts in each major U.S. sport:
Sport .. .. .. .. Franchise .. .. .. .. .. .. Last title
Baseball .. .. .. Chicago Cubs .. .. .. .. .. 1908
Football .. .. .. Arizona Cardinals ... .. . *1947
Basketball ... .. Sacramento Kings . .. ... **1951
Hockey Detroit .. Red Wings .. .. .. .. .. .. 1955
*-Known as Chicago Cardinals in 1947. **-Known as Rochester Royals in 1951