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Behind the coaching hire that took the Rangers back to glory.

If you are 78 years old or younger, then what happened exactly a quarter of a century ago on this date of April 17 is truly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. For 25 years ago Tuesday, the Rangers hired a head coach who would win the Stanley Cup. No doubt you have heard of him, this fella...
Time: 16:45     Date: 16.04.2018
Last US Sport News: Behind the coaching hire that took the Rangers back to glory. NY Post 24 - US News

For 25 years ago Tuesday, the Rangers hired a head coach who would win the Stanley Cup.

No doubt you have heard of him, this fella by the name of Mike Keenan.

Just as you know the name of the only man alive to have hired a Cup-winner to coach the Blueshirts, this person called Neil Smith.

“Mike was a very difficult guy to work with because he just didn’t like to have to answer to anyone, but there was no doubt in my mind then and there is no doubt in my mind now that he was exactly the right coach at exactly the right time for that team,” Smith told The Post on Monday. “Knowing how it all worked out, the good and the bad, I can tell you without any hesitation that I would do it again every single time.”

The Rangers had won the Presidents’ Trophy in 1991-92 in Roger Neilson’s first year behind the bench and Mark Messier’s first season on Broadway before suffering a second-round defeat to the Penguins in the series in which Mike Richter allowed that 100-footer to Ron Francis in Game 4 and Adam Graves was suspended for slashing Mario Lemieux.

But there were philosophical issues that arose between Messier and Neilson that bled into 1992-93. Neilson was fired 40 games into the season, replaced by AHL Binghamton head coach Ron Smith. Brian Leetch broke his ankle, Messier was injured, and the Rangers missed the playoffs by going 1-10-1 over the final dozen games.

Neil Smith and Mike Keenan after the Rangers hired Keenan as head coach.Getty Images

One day after the season ended with a defeat in Washington, the Rangers had done enough waiting until next year. The players hadn’t even reported for their breakup-day exit meetings when Smith introduced Keenan as the 1993-94 head coach.

“I wanted to mitigate the damage from ’92-93 as quickly as possible,” Smith said. “I wanted to be able to turn the page on the negativity and move into positive territory as quickly as possible, before anyone could even write an obit. Hiring Mike did that.

“Once we had Mike, the conversation was all about what was going to come next, instead of being focused on what had gone wrong.”

Twenty-five years later, the Rangers are again seeking a coach following a disappointing playoff miss. But unlike 1993, there is no slam-dunk figure for general manager Jeff Gorton to hire. No consensus candidate the way Keenan was for Smith.

“With about a week to go in the season, I told [ownership] that there were only three people who could win the Cup with our team,” Smith said. “One was Scotty Bowman, but he was coaching the Penguins. The second was Al Arbour, but he was tied up with the Islanders.

“The third was Mike, and he was the only one who was available because he’d been fired as general manager in Chicago early that year after giving up coaching the previous summer. So to me, he was the only guy for the job.”

Smith wanted to work quickly to rinse out the bad taste from 1992-93, but there was another reason for his haste. Keenan, you see, had an offer in hand from the Flyers, whom he had coached to a pair of Cup final appearances in 1985 and 1987 during his four-year stint on Broad Street.

‘I can tell you without any hesitation that I would do it again every single time.’

 - Neil Smith

“I met with Mike in Toronto at his agent’s office on the last day of the season,” Smith said. “And [agent] Rob Campbell showed us the paperwork on the offer from Philly, which was for five years. That was his leverage. And so we hired him, and the next day we introduced him as our head coach.”

The rest is history that ended with the ride up the Canyon of Heroes before it ended just a few weeks after that, with Keenan’s choreographed exit off Broadway that brought talk of treasonous behavior and sustained tampering charges.

Only the Rangers could win after 54 years and somehow immediately lose their Cup-winning coach in the process.

“You never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next with Mike; there was always chaos,” Smith said. “There was no one to whom he was going to be subordinate, even though it seems reasonable to expect that the coach would be subordinate to the president/general manager, who was me.

“But regardless, he was the right guy. He was perfect for Mark, which meant he was perfect for Brian [Leetch], Adam [Graves] and Mike [Richter]. After that, with the trades, everything fell into place. It wasn’t easy, and the entire experience is something you just had to endure, which I did.

“But there are no regrets. Not one. How could there be? We won the Cup.”

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