Curse of 1940
The Curse of 1940, also called Dutton's Curse, was a superstitious explanation for why the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League (NHL) did not win the league's championship trophy, the Stanley Cup, from 1940–94.
The Rangers began play in the 1926–27 season and won a division title in their first season of existence and a Stanley Cup against the Montreal Maroons in their second. They would win two more Cups in 1932–33 and 1939–40, defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs both times.
During the 1939–40 season, the mortgage on the Rangers' home arena, the third Madison Square Garden (built in 1925), was paid off. Hence, the management of the Madison Square Garden Corporation symbolically burned the mortgage in the bowl of the Cup. This led some hockey fans to believe that the Cup, which is regarded almost as a sacred object, had been "desecrated", leading the "hockey gods" to place a curse on the Rangers.
Another theory is that the supposed curse came from Red Dutton, the coach and general manager of the New York Americans, for whom he had once played. The Amerks were actually the first NHL team to play in New York City, beginning play as soon as the Garden opened for the 1925–26 season. However, their original owner, bootlegger Bill Dwyer, found the going difficult with the end of Prohibition, and the NHL took over ownership of the team in 1937. They made five playoff appearances, including a quarterfinal loss to the Rangers in 1928–29 and a quarterfinal win over the Rangers in 1937–38. However, after beating the Rangers, the Amerks fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Black Hawks in the 1938 semifinals, the closest they ever came to winning the Cup.
Following the 1941–42 season, many NHL players entered the armed forces to fight in World War II. This hurt the Americans more than the other teams, and so Dutton announced his team would suspend operations for the duration of the war. He was named NHL President upon the death of Frank Calder in 1943, a post he held until 1946, when he resigned and was replaced by Clarence Campbell.
Dutton had resigned the league presidency with the intention of reviving the Amerks. However, the league, with the encouragement of Garden management, reneged on a longstanding promise to allow the Amerks to return. A bitter Dutton declared that the Rangers would never win the Cup for as long as he lived. He died in 1987 at 88. At that time, the Rangers were in their 47th season without having won the Cup.
The Curse of 1940 "worked" in several ways, some of them odd. The Madison Square Garden Corporation found it could make more money when Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town in the spring. This forced the Rangers, and later the National Basketball Association's New York Knicks, to use different arenas at the worst possible time – during their respective leagues' playoffs. At the time, it was not possible to configure arenas in a way that would allow a circus and a hockey or basketball game to take place on the same day. Hence, the Rangers used Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto as their "home ice" in the 1950 Stanley Cup Finals, a move that potentially cost the Rangers that year's Stanley Cup. After the Blueshirts took a 3-2 series lead on the Wings, the NHL cited an obscure rule stating that the deciding game in a Stanley Cup Final could not be played on neutral ice. Maple Leaf Gardens was labelled "neutral" because its tenants proper were the Leafs, and Madison Square Garden was still occupied by the circus at the time. The Detroit Olympia was thus the venue for the sixth (although the Rangers were to be designated the "home" team for that match) and seventh games, both of which were won by Detroit.
Also, while Dutton was the league president, he oversaw a 1943–44 Rangers team that inherited the title the Americans left behind upon their folding of hardest-hit NHL team by World War II. The Rangers asked the NHL for permission to fold until the end of the war because of their best players' service in the armed forces overseas — a request Dutton himself had neglected to make before his own team ceased operations, as he had simply folded the Americans franchise. The Dutton-controlled NHL did not honor the Rangers' request, and so they finished well back of the other five teams that year, with career minor-league goaltender Ken McAuley giving up 310 goals in the team's 50 games, a league record for worst goals-against-average that has stood ever since. The closest any goalie since has come to equalling this record is Greg Millen, whose 4.70 GAA came from allowing 282 goals in 60 games for the Hartford Whalers forty seasons later.
League corruption and favoritism through the entire Original Six era was also a factor in the Rangers' futility. James E. Norris, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings, at one point also owned controlling stakes in both the Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks, allowing him to stack the best players onto the Red Wings. This continued after the elder Norris's death, as his two sons, James D. Norris and Bruce Norris, continued to control the three teams. During this time, the NHL still held territorial drafts, in which teams would get first rights to players who played junior hockey within a 50-mile radius of the home stadium; this gave Toronto, Detroit and Montreal significant recruiting advantages, since the areas around those cities were far more developed in their junior hockey programs than those further from the Canadian border, including the Rangers.
The Rangers struggled for several years after World War II; after their 1950 Finals appearance they only made the playoffs six times in 17 seasons. In 1972, they reached the Stanley Cup Finals again, only to lose to the Boston Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. The next season began with the founding of an expansion team playing on Long Island, the New York Islanders. In 1974–75, the Islanders qualified for the playoffs for the first time and defeated the Rangers. The two teams squared off again in 1978–79, this time with the Rangers emerging victorious. They went on to lose the 1979 Cup Finals to the Montreal Canadiens, who claimed their fourth Stanley Cup in a row.
The Islanders won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 1980, beginning their own streak of four consecutive championships, one more than the Rangers had won in their entire 57-year history to that point (after 1983 the Isles had only existed for 11 years). During the Islanders' second Cup run, in 1981, the Islanders swept the Rangers in the second round. During that series, fans of the younger franchise taunted the Rangers by chanting "1940!" This chant caught on around the league. It was also in the 1980s that the idea of a "Curse of 1940" began to take hold, with Red Dutton's death in 1987 and the occasional publication of the photograph of the Garden mortgage being burned in the Cup's bowl (the third Garden was demolished after the Rangers and Knicks moved into the current Garden in 1968). Also, in 1982, the Colorado Rockies moved to suburban East Rutherford, New Jersey and became the New Jersey Devils, giving the Rangers a second rival in the New York metropolitan area.
In 1991–92, the Rangers finished with the best overall record in the NHL, earning them their first of two Presidents' Trophies, but they lost to the defending Cup champion (and eventual champions) Pittsburgh Penguins in the Patrick Division Finals. Although the Penguins were defending champions, and their victory was hardly a shocking one, an odd moment came when Rangers goaltender Mike Richter allowed a shot from the blue line by Pittsburgh's Ron Francis by him. The next season, with hopes high, the Rangers finished last in the Patrick Division, largely because of an injury to defenseman Brian Leetch. In the kind of incident many fans ascribe to curses, Leetch arrived at the Garden in a taxi, stepped out, and broke his ankle when he slipped on a patch of ice, a most ironic injury for a hockey player.
End of the Curse
By 1993–94, the Rangers had not won the Stanley Cup in 54 years. In that time, championships had been won in the New York area by the Islanders (four), the New York Yankees (fourteen), the New York Mets (two), the New York Giants baseball team (one, and they had been in San Francisco since 1958), the Brooklyn Dodgers (one, and they had been in Los Angeles since 1958), the New York Giants football team (three), the New York Jets (one), the New York Knicks (two NBA titles) and the New Jersey Nets (two ABA titles, playing as the New York Nets). All five of the other Original Six teams collected Stanley Cups since 1940: the Canadiens 20 times, including the previous year; the Maple Leafs 10 times, but none since 1967; Detroit five times, but none since 1955; Boston three times, but none since 1972, and the Black Hawks once, in 1961.
The Rangers stormed through the 1993–94 regular season, scoring 112 points en route to clinching their second Presidents' Trophy in three years. They swept aside the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs and defeated the Washington Capitals in five games in the second round before meeting the Devils (whom they had beaten in the 1992 Patrick Division Semifinals) in the Eastern Conference Finals. Devils fans had picked up the "1940!" chant and the curse myth from Islander fans, and curiously, the hockey seating capacity of the Devils' home arena, the Brendan Byrne Arena (later renamed the Continental Airlines Arena and then Izod Center), was 19,040. With the Rangers trailing the series three games to two and facing elimination, it looked as though the curse was at work again. However, Rangers captain Mark Messier challenged the New York media by offering a "guaranteed" win in Game 6: "We know we're going in there to win Game 6 and bringing it back for Game 7. We feel we can win it and we feel we are going to win it." The New York Post and The New York Daily News both carried back pages offering Messier's guarantee: "We'll Win Tonight." Rangers' coach Mike Keenan said of the guarantee: "Mark was sending a message to his teammates that he believed together we could win. He put on an amazing performance to make sure it happened."
The Rangers quickly fell behind 2-0, but trailing 2-1 in the third period, Messier scored a natural hat trick (three straight goals) to make good on his guarantee and force a deciding seventh game. The curse threatened again in Game 7 as the Rangers led 1-0 and looked as though they were about to advance to the Cup Finals when New Jersey's Valeri Zelepukin scored with 7.7 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game. But in the second overtime, Stephane Matteau scored to give the Rangers the game and the series.
The Rangers moved on to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks and took a 3-2 lead late in the third period of the deciding seventh game. They shot the puck down the length of the ice with seven seconds left. Thinking the game was over, the Rangers poured onto the ice celebration. However, the Canucks touched the puck to stop play with 1.1 seconds left in regulation. The officials reset the clock to 1.6 seconds and ordered a faceoff in the Rangers' zone. Messier and Craig MacTavish conferred and came up with a gambit to ensure the Rangers' win. Both of them, deciding that the officials wouldn't call a penalty at such a dramatic moment, committed fouls on the final drop of the puck as first Messier, then MacTavish whacked and cross-checked Vancouver's star forward Pavel Bure.
The CBC broadcast of Game 7 attracted an average Canadian audience of 4.957 million viewers, making it the most-watched CBC Sports program in history at the time, a record since eclipsed by the men's ice hockey gold medal game between Canada and the United States at the 2002 Winter Olympics, when Canada won its first Olympic ice hockey gold medal since the 1952 Winter Olympics, which drew 10.6 million. CBC commentator Bob Cole, who called both games, said that Game 7 was one of his most memorable TV games.
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- Canadian Press (June 15, 2011). "Babych haunted by Canucks' Game 7 loss in 1994". CBCSports.ca. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved May 19, 2012. "The broadcast of Game 7 attracted an average audience of (4.957) million viewers to CBC. At the time, it was the most-watched CBC sports program in history."
- Mckay, John (February 26, 2002). "Record number of viewers tune in hockey game". Canadian Press. "A record-busting 8.7 million Canadians were...watching the Canadian men's hockey team snatch gold from the United States in Salt Lake City. The television audience actually peaked at 10.6 million, the CBC said Monday...CBC says that prior to Sunday, its highest-rated sports show was Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup between the New York Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks, which attracted an average of 4.97 million viewers."
- Houston, William (November 6, 1997). "Cole's Close Call". The Globe and Mail. p. S4. "Cole's three most memorable TV games: 1. Game 7 of the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals (Edmonton 3, Philadelphia 1). The Oilers at their peak. 2. Game 3 of 1996 World Cup of Hockey Final (United States 5, Canada 2). 'I was devastated.' 3. Game 7, 1994 Stanley Cup Finals (New York Rangers 3, Vancouver 2). 'A great series.'"