New York Rangers hockey fans turn out for 25th anniversary event with 1994 luminaries

Scott Jacobs

The auditorium at the iPlay America center in Freehold has a maximum capacity of 122 people.

The iPlay’s event center can handle almost 1,000 people.

Both venues in the Freehold amusement center were packed and loud for a very special event on June 30: The 25th Anniversary of the New York Rangers’ 1994 National Hockey League Stanley Cup championship.

The ’94 Rangers won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 54 years with an indelible run that included seven game victories in the Eastern Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals. On June 30, the four best players from that team, captain Mark Messier, goaltender Mike Richter, leading goal scorer Adam Graves and top defenseman Brian Leetch, reunited for a question and answer session and an autograph session with New York area sports fans.

The Rangers have not won a Stanley Cup since that memorable 1994 playoff season, so even almost three decades later, the season has not lost its luster. Fans young, middle aged and old attended the reunion at iPlay America, which raised money for the Mikey Strong Charity.

“Mikey Strong” is Mike Nichols, a Monroe Township resident who suffered a serious spinal cord injury while playing hockey. The charity raises money for Nichols’ medical needs. “Mikey” attended the June 30 event and took pictures with the Ranger legends.

Between entry fees and a silent auction, which ran throughout the day, iPlay officials were hoping to raise between $3,000 and $5,000. They were confident that they would at least make it into the thousands.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with how the day went,” said Jessica Schwartz, vice president of sales and marketing for iPlay America. “Just the enthusiasm from the fans and how excited they were, standing up, cheering when the guys came out.”

For New York fans, the ’94 title run was like the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship run or the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2017-18 Super Bowl run. It was a long awaited title that captivated a region of passionate fans.

The Rangers’ fans can still rattle off the iconic moments as if they happened yesterday. When Stephane Matteau walked out onto the stage to take some questions, before the four best players came on for the main event, he was greeted with raucous chants of, “Matteau, Matteau, Matteau!”

In game seven of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Matteau scored the winning goal in double overtime to beat the New Jersey Devils. Rangers radio announcer Howie Rose called the goal by shouting Matteau’s name three times.

Later on June 30, during the question and answer session, Messier was asked multiple times about how he guaranteed a victory before game six of the Eastern Finals, then went out and scored three goals to lead the Rangers to a 4-2 victory.

Richter was asked to fully dissect his save of Vancouver Canucks star Pavel Bure’s penalty shot in game four of the Stanley Cup Finals, which shifted the momentum to New York in its eventual 4-2 victory.

The players did all this with big smiles on their faces. They were talking about the most iconic season of their hockey lives. But they also knew what it meant to the fans.

“It’s so easy to look at it from the point of view of your own career, and what you were trying to achieve,” Richter said. “But it always brings it home to me to be with the fans.”

“This was a meaningful moment for a city,” he added. “And it still is.”

“It’s been one cup in 79 years, so you can understand why that cup is so celebrated,” Messier said. “It was an amazing time.”

The fans all had their own stories about watching and experiencing the team, too.

Bill Chambers, 50, of Aberdeen Township, formerly of Staten Island, got cable television for the first time as a student at SUNY New Paltz in the late 1980s. He used to watch the Rangers’ games with his suite mates.

“That’s when Richter came up and Leetch, and we really started getting into the team. We watched them grow,” Chambers said. “Then it all worked out. It was great.”

Barry Kaplan, 72, lives in Florida now. His son flew him up for the event at iPlay on June 30.

The lifelong Rangers fan lived in the Bronx, Queens and Long Island before moving south. He attended games at Madison Square Garden when it first opened in 1968, paying 25 cents to sit in the upper deck and “hit the top of the stadium,” he said.

In 1994, he attended game five of the Stanley Cup Finals after passing up on a $3,000 offer to sell his tickets.

“I wouldn’t sell them,” Kaplan said. “There was no way.”