Rangers taken to rafters


NEW YORK -- The Stanley Cup was lowered from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden, buoyed by the cheers and tears and noise of 18,000 fans.

There were lasers and smoke, loud, loud music and fireworks; 18,000 people singing "New York, New York," and on key, too; toothless guys with teary eyes; videos, lots of videos, and so many cheers that you feared all the hot air and excitement might melt the ice.

Hockey got lucky last night.

The Buffalo Sabres beat the New York Rangers, 2-1, but it didn't really matter, because the feel-good mood of the Stanley Cup made this one loss OK.

In New York, where the lights are brighter, the music louder, the fans meaner and noisier and happier and sadder, the Stanley Cup is bigger.

And so the NHL season finally started last night -- after a bitter, mean-spirited, 109-day lockout -- with a hockey festival at Madison Square Garden.

It was 109 days late, but after the Rangers and their fans had waited for 54 years, maybe that made it even better. The Rangers finally got to raise their banners, four of them -- for the 1994 NHL regular-season championship, for the Atlantic Division championship, for the Eastern Conference championship and for the Stanley Cup championship.

Inside the Garden, with the stars and the glitz and the high-tech fun and the low-tech emotions, the lockout was forgotten, gone away like that 54-year jinx that had haunted the Rangers. They celebrated the Cup and then played hockey again, and this feel-good night was the best PR the NHL could have wanted.

After the 36-minute ceremony, the Rangers scored the first goal, too -- a goal by Steve Larmer only 3 minutes, 35 seconds after the smoke had cleared and while the booms of the indoor fireworks were still making eardrums vibrate.

Then Buffalo scored, hardly two minutes later. Dale Hawerchuk finished off a two-on-one break with a shot past Rangers goalie Mike Richter. Richter had been beloved moments before, when he had stopped two right-on shots, but now he was a bum. That's hockey in New York. And the game was tied at 1-1 after a period.

And it stayed that way through the second period and into the third, until Donald Audette, a Buffalo winger, launched a little hop, skip and jump shot that kicked over Richter's stick and into the net for the winner with 14:35 left in the game.

Yes, hockey got lucky.

There were signs all over New York. In little delis, "Welcome back, Rangers." In fancy hotel lobbies, "Let's go, Rangers." On the window of a cab, "Thank you, Rangers." On the sandwich board of a fan who said, "Just call me Joe Fan."

The most tingling moment, better even than when the Cup dropped from the sky, was when Mark Messier picked up the Cup and began skating. The noise was board-rattling.

Messier passed the Cup to Brian Leetch, who passed it to Richter, and the players kept passing it and skating it around the ice so that everybody could see it.

This moment had almost been ruined. Reality had almost intruded. A contract problem between Messier and the Rangers had almost elbowed its way through the boards and onto the ice. Not more than 45 minutes before the ceremonies were to begin, there were rumors that Messier hadn't agreed to a redone contract and that the hero of the 1994 Stanley Cup, the guy who had promised a New York win over Vancouver in Game 7, wouldn't be on the ice.

But hockey got lucky. Something got settled. Messier played. And first he skated with the Cup.

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