When kids are brought up in a sports-loving household like I was, there comes a time when the indoctrination translates into actual fandom. Around the age of six or seven, you start having vivid memories of individual games or players. I remember the Jets getting knocked out of the 1991 playoffs by the Houston Oilers, for instance. I was six years old.
So, these are the formative years. Once you start understanding the game, its meaning, and its performers, you forge an unbreakable bond with the team. And you never forget the moments that made you the fan you are today.
I was fortunate enough during this part of my life, then, to experience a golden age of sorts in New York that did not revolve around the New York Yankees, who are responsible for almost all of this city's sports glory. From the late 1980's through 1997, the New York Rangers and New York Knicks were good enough to compete for championships almost every single year. Madison Square Garden rocked every spring, from April to May, and sometimes into June. It was not at all uncommon for Mark Messier and Patrick Ewing to trade the back pages of the tabloids on a daily basis.
Of course, this all peaked in 1994. On the hardwood, the Knicks had dealt with Michael Jordan-induced heartbreak in 1991, 1992 and 1993. But 1994 was the year MJ decided to give baseball a shot. On the ice, the 1992-1993 Rangers, one year removed from winning the President's Trophy with the league's best record, missed the playoffs after an absolutely epic collapse, losing their final seven regular season games.
So for both teams, 1994 represented a chance - the best chance - to right some previous wrongs. To give their starved fanbases the championship they'd been coveting for decades.
We know how it all turned out. For the Rangers, the captain delivered on his promise, the Rangers' first Stanley Cup in 54 years. For the Knicks, more heartbreak for their unquestioned leader (and the city he carried on his broad shoulders and failing knees) because his hardworking, loyal supporting cast came up just a little bit short in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The years that followed brought more great playoff memories - think Wayne Gretzky's hat trick and Allan Houston's winner in Miami - however, even if there was no championship trophy ceremony at the end of the line.
And then, in 1998, things began to change. The bright lights of Madison Square Garden ever so slightly began to fade as the weather warmed in mid-April. Sure, the Knicks were still fielding strong teams, and made an unlikely run to the NBA Finals in 1999, but everyone knew that Patrick Ewing had entered the twilight of his career. Pretty soon, Ewing was unceremoniously traded and Isiah Thomas was manning the ship.
For the Rangers beginning in 1998, big-money signings turning in listless performances was a nightly occurrence at the World's Most Famous arena. The Garden became a retirement home, where players like Eric Lindros, Bobby Holik, Pavel Bure and Mark Messier II could show up for a leisurely twirl around the rink, and still collect a nice paycheck at the end of the night. The result: no playoffs from 1998-2004 (plus the lockout-cancelled 2004-05 season).
Since 1997, the Knicks and Rangers have appeared in the playoffs a combined total of nine times, and not once in the same season. Until now.
On Saturday night, the Rangers sat and watched coach John Tortorella's former team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, trash the Carolina Hurricanes 6-2, thereby securing the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot for the Blueshirts. Six days earlier, the Knicks defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers at home to clinch their first playoff berth in seven seasons. For the first time in 14 years, there will be playoff hockey and playoff basketball at Madison Square Garden.
No one from either fanbase is naive enough to think that the Rangers or Knicks are serious contenders, but that's not really the point this season. The point is that this could be the first season in a run that may very well resemble what we witnessed in the late 80's and early 90's.
Think about it: The Rangers have one of the strongest foundations of any team in the NHL. They have spent the 2010-2011 season forging an identity behind, as cliche as it all sounds, hard work, selflessness and sacrifice. Look no further than Ryan Callahan throwing his body in front of a 104 MPH slap shot by Zdeno Chara to preserve a late-season victory against the Boston Bruins. They have a world class goaltender and are one or two high-skill players (Brad Richards anyone?) away from contending for a Stanley Cup every single year.
Meanwhile, the Knicks have spent the last three seasons gutting their roster to give themselves the cap flexibility to add superstar talent, which is the only route to a championship in the Association. When LeBron James chose the palm trees and fake tans in Miami, the Knicks went to a hell of a Plan B: Amar'e Stoudemire. While no one would ever mistake STAT for Patrick Ewing in the post or on the defensive end, his demeanor is fitting of a Knicks captain, and one that fans can embrace. Carmelo Anthony has come to New York and flamboyantly stolen the spotlight; and a few wins with some last-second heroics as well.
The Rangers are gearing up to square off against the Washington Capitals, starting Wednesday. The Knicks will begin a bloodbath with either Miami or the Boston Celtics next weekend. It's going to be fun, so it's time to settle in and cherish this, the first truly exciting spring at MSG in almost a decade and a half.
The lights are shining brightly on Broadway again. The playoffs are back in New York.