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New Yorkers had embraced the underdog Rangers, and the underdog Rangers had embraced them right back. Thirty five years ago, the city and its hockey team shared a love affair so passionate that the goalie, John Davidson, would rise in the morning to a touching show of fan appreciation: flowers, notes, glassware and clothing on his doorstep.
Born in Ottawa and raised in Calgary as the son of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, Davidson had become no less a New Yorker than Ed Koch. He was a 26-year-old star drinking it all in, basking in the New York Rangers' improbable run to the 1979 Stanley Cup finals and the promise that their matchup with the mighty Montreal Canadiens was only the start of something special -- win, lose or draw.
|It still "gnaws" at John Davidson that he never made it back to the Stanley Cup finals after 1979.|
"You felt the support of millions of people," Davidson said. "And in those days Madison Square Garden was one wild place. If you didn't play great, hey, they let you know it. You learned how to live with it, and then you made friends with those fans, and the relationship grew so damn strong that I'll still see people in airports -- even in Sweden this past holiday season -- and they'll want to talk about that 1979 series."
A series the Rangers lost in five to a Montreal team with Hall of Famers up and down the roster. A series that still haunts the 61-year-old president of hockey operations for the Columbus Blue Jackets, if only because he never got a chance to even the score.
"It really gnaws at me to know that I never made it back there," Davidson said. "And that's the one thing I'd tell the current guys: Enjoy this, live it 24 hours every day and want it very badly because you don't know if you'll ever get back. The 1994 Rangers club has something together for the rest of their lives. We had something that was very good in 1979, but we can't touch that. As proud as I am of our group, in the end we didn't win."
The Rangers of 2014 need to understand something: They have to treat this best-of-seven with the favored Los Angeles Kings as the only shot they're going to get at a championship. Henrik Lundqvist has waited nine NHL seasons to reach this point, and he's six years older than Davidson was when he made his one-and-done trip.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NHL, where out of nowhere hot postseason goalies can pit a five seed against a six seed for the right to throw a parade. As a team that nobody expected to advance this far, especially after losing three of the first four games in the conference semis to Pittsburgh, these Rangers are more reminiscent of the '79 team than the '94 team, which earned a league-high 112 points in the regular season. The '79 Rangers finished third in the four-team Patrick Division before facing the Los Angeles Kings, of all teams, in what was then the preliminary round of the playoffs.
Davidson recalled the Kings' Charlie Simmer beating him early in Game 1 and hitting the goal post. "If that goes in," he said, "who knows what happens."
It didn't go in. The Rangers won by a 7-1 count, swept the series and beat the Flyers in five before upsetting the league's best regular season team, the Islanders, in six to advance to play Montreal for the Cup.
As it turned out, the Rangers found themselves wedged between two dynasties: The Canadiens were about to win their fourth consecutive Cup, and the Islanders were one season away from starting their own staggering streak of four in a row. But Davidson, Phil Esposito, Anders Hedberg and a kid named Ron Duguay didn't know it then. They beat Montreal 4-1 in Game 1 in the Forum, all but setting their home city on fire.
"The adrenaline flow from the support of New Yorkers was unimaginable," Davidson said. "You can't explain it unless you live through it. Aside from my family and children, the way we captured the city was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The cabbies were talking about us, guys in the deli, police officers, firemen. People did everything for us, and all we had to worry about was getting to the rink, getting dressed and playing our tails off.
"And getting it done too. Our job was to win the Cup."
For the first time since 1940, of course. Hall of Famer Eddie Giacomin had his shot when he lost to Boston in 1972, and now Davidson -- playing with an injured knee -- was getting his. The Rangers took a 2-0 lead in Game 2, stunning the Forum crowd, before reality hit them like a body check into the boards. The Canadiens had stars the likes of Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Yvan Cournoyer, and Bob Gainey, plus Scotty Bowman as their coach. Montreal ripped off six unanswered goals, won Game 3 at Madison Square Garden and then took the Rangers into overtime in Game 4. Then Serge Savard scored the goal that broke the Rangers' resolve.
"He came down on a two-on-one, and I thought he was going to pass to Lafleur, and he didn't," Davidson said. "I've been on the Hall of Fame selection committee with Serge, and he rubs it in every time we have a meeting."
Davidson can laugh about it in middle age, and he likes to redirect the ribbing Boston's way, telling the old Bruins that if they'd beaten Montreal in the previous round -- the Canadiens prevailed in overtime of Game 7 -- the Rangers definitely would've won it all. But even though it is clear to Davidson that Montreal had more talent than his Rangers, the memory of that defeat still hurts.
Injuries derailed his career, and he was forced to retire at age 30. He had a good run as a player and an even better one as a broadcaster, and now he's making a third career out of trying to win the Cup as an executive in Columbus.
"I'm still in the game trying to win it, but it's not the same when you're not a player," he said. "There's no better way to win a championship than as a player. I mean, that's why I'd like to do it all over again. We finished second, and when you don't win, it can drive you nuts watching someone else carrying the Cup around."
Except that there was no better place to finish as the runner-up than New York. Davidson tells as many young athletes who ask that they should do whatever they can to spend part of their careers in the big city and that there's nothing like it in sports. He told John Moore, Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett as much when he traded them to the Rangers last year in exchange for Marian Gaborik.
Not that Davidson will go on record with the idea that he wants his former team to beat the Kings; he'll only say he wants the Blue Jackets -- not the Blueshirts -- to win the Cup. But as someone who knows how precious an opportunity like this is, he would surely tell the Rangers that it doesn't matter if Los Angeles is the favored team, or even the better team.
All that matters is finding a way -- any way -- to get to four victories before the Kings do. Failing to do that might someday leave the Rangers as middle-aged men haunted by what might have been.