If blood, guts and assorted forms of mayhem can characterize a hockey rivalry, none do it better than the 1990 Rangers-Islanders set-to. It all culminated on April 9, 1990, with an Islanders victory in double overtime, but the events that preceded it caused hospital visits, vitriol between management and coaches and a curious on-the-air battle between sportscasters.
The background for the shenanigans is as necessary as the foreground and whatever was left in between. To begin with, there was uncertainty about whether or not Al Arbour should continue coaching the Isles. Especially since Lorne Henning was prominently mentioned as a candidate to succeed him.
But Al liked the idea of revitalizing the team and Henning was brought aboard as assistant coach. As an extra added attraction to further spark the rivalry, Isles general manager Bill Torrey, signed former Rangers wing Don Maloney.
The Maloney pact sparked intense discussions – if not battles – among Rangers and Islanders fans. After all, Maloney had been one of the toughest battlers for the Rangers over nearly a dozen years. Don caused no end of grief for the Nassaumen, especially his controversial last minute goal in the 1984 playoffs. Upon signing with the Isles, Don conceded that his goal was indeed delivered with an illegal high stick.
On the Rangers’ side rookie general manager Neil Smith had crafted a contending team. He surprised many by bringing Roger Neilson in as his coach and also featured Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck splitting time between the pipes while John Ogrodnick led the team in goals (43) and points (74).
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: My wife Shirley and I attended the Neilson press conference at the hotel diagonally across from the Garden on 34th street and 7th avenue. Neilson seemed like a curious choice because he was considered somewhat of an oddball ever since his Junior days behind the bench with the Peterborough Petes. However, Smith (the youngest general manager in the NHL at the time) impressed us with his intellectual bent and Neilson already displayed the humor and passion that would endear him to the New York media for many years. Within a month, Smith surprised us by putting together a very impressive management team that included assistant general manager/operations Gord Stellick, assistant general manager/player development Larry Pleau, development coach Paul Theriault and assistant coach Ron Smith.)
Once the season started, the Rangers looked formidable while the Islanders were fallible; and that is being kind to them. After 26 games, the Nassaumen had a 5-18-3 record; compounding the problems was the loss of Rich Pilon for the rest of the season after a wrist shot by Detroit’s Brent Fedyk hit him directly in the eye.
Torrey solved the problem by wheeling and dealing. He unloaded enigmatic Finnish winger Mikko Makela to Los Angeles and obtained little center Hubie McDonough and a hulking blonde bomber named Ken (Bomber) Baumgartner. The turnabout was stunning and the Islanders went on an 18-3-1 tear, which included a nine-game winning streak.
Bomber was even more popular with his long hair (and fists) flying in the face of the toughest of enforcers. Although he was, at best, a decent shower singer, Baumgartner was signed by Metal Blade Records to air a pair of hard rockers for an LP. Of course, the star insisted that all of the proceeds go to charity.
It’s important to remember Baumgartner because he would eventually turn the combustible sparks of rivalry into a conflagration; but that would come during the playoffs.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Ever since the four-Cup dynasty years, Torrey sought a one-two punch that would match the Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier duet.The new version was Pat LaFontaine, who would become a Hall of Famer, and Patrick Flatley, whose physical presence was so pronounced in the 1984 playoffs.The goaltending of Mark Fitzpatrick and Glenn Healy improved with the season. Healy peaked on January 17th, 1990 making 51 saves in a 3-0 win over Vancouver. What we at SportsChannel loved was the humor generated by Healy and Flatley. In fact producer Kevin Meininger developed a regular feature called “The Heals and Flats Show.”It was an impromptu, mostly adlib, routine that occasionally was shot in their game room or similar venues and it was difficult to tell which one was the funnier of the pair. There was no straight man!)
On Jan. 19, the Isles went into the All-Star break actually leading the Patrick Division. The last thing they needed was a break in their spectacular momentum and a spate of injuries to essential players.
Alas, a worst-case scenario unfolded once the team regrouped for a post-All-Star homestretch run and the club never would be the same. Injuries to Patrick Flatley, Pat LaFontaine, Jeff Norton and Derek King affected both offense and defense since Norton also was the club’s top offensive defenseman.
Over a period of five weeks, the Isles not only lost momentum but went winless in 14 games. Ironically they ended the drought on March 17, 1990, defeating the Rangers, of all people, 6-3 at Uniondale.
With a 33-28-12 mark, the Blueshirts were assured of a playoff berth. The acquisition of scoring ace Bernie Nicholls – in exchange for Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom – from Los Angeles had bolstered the Rangers attack
Having only three games remaining on their slate, the Islanders were nine games under the .500 mark (29-38-11) but still had a chance to make the post-season. Returned from his injury, LaFontaine scored his 50th and 51st goals of the season in a 5-5 tie at Edmonton. But a 4-2 loss to Calgary put the team one point away from elimination.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: None of us on the SportsChannel side gave the Isles a chance.The club still had a game at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and then came home to conclude the regular schedule against the Flyers.The loss to Calgary put a damper on what we figured might – just might – be a memorable finish. But beating the Leafs and Flyers in succession seemed a bit much to me; especially since the team had been so erratic down the line.Nobody could have dreamed at that point that these same Islanders would wind up facing the Rangers in the first playoff round.)
Every so often every part of a puzzle that has to fall into place actually does fit all the openings almost all at once and that – in a nutshell – summed up the Islanders race for the playoff berth. Unbelievably, they scored five goals in the third period to win at Toronto, 6-3.Then, on March 31 – The Maven’s birthday – they routed the Flyers in Uniondale. Yet there was one more piece needed to complete the puzzle; the Isles had to rely on Buffalo to defeat Mario Lemieux and the Penguins in the Igloo at Pittsburgh.
Since the Penguins game started later, Al Arbour and his troops were able to park in front of the locker room television set, hoping against hope that the Sabres would prevail. As luck would have it, the game was tied after regulation and went into overtime. Only one minute into the extra session Buffalo defenseman Uwe Krupp’s slapshot grazed off a Penguin and sailed past goalie Tom Barrasso. The Islanders were in the playoffs.
“Can you believe this?” shouted Bryan Trottier across the jubilant room.
MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: In fact many of us – especially me – figured we were enjoying a dream. I was in the room watching along with Flatley, one of my favorite players. “We had some kind of incredible karma,” Flats announced to the screaming crowd. Meanwhile goalie Mark Fitzpatrick got a few laughs when he added: “Uwe Krupp just became my best friend in the world.”
Eventually the ecstasy dissolved into reality. Just around the corner was the first playoff round and who would the Isles be opening with the hated Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
There was little doubt that the Blueshirts had a better team. The Rangers finished five wins over .500 (36-31-13) but, on the other hand, the Islanders daredevil finish gave them a new feeling of confidence.
I figured that if Arbour could somehow eke a win out of one of the pair of opening two games at The Garden, his club might pull off yet another playoff upset as they had in 1975. If there was one worry on the Islanders side it was all about Roger Neilson’s coaching. He was behind the Maple Leafs bench in 1978 for one of the bloodiest Islanders series in history. What’s more Toronto eliminated the Isles in seven games.
Neilson also piloted Vancouver when the Canucks met the Islanders in the 1982 Final and went out in four games but not without heavily bruising the likes of Hall of Famer Mike Bossy. There was a palpable feeling that another raucous rivalry series was on its way.
Game One at The Garden was tight and plenty of the skaters on both sides were uptight because the I.Q. – as in Intensity Quotient – was as high as it could get. All that was needed, really, was an explosive incident to send the lava over the top and it happened in the closing minutes.
Picking up speed as he entered the neutral zone, LaFontaine took a double-hit to the head; first from Rangers defenseman James Patrick’s elbow followed by a conk of the game delivered by New York’s resident tough guy Chris Nilan. LaFontaine fell on his head and was unconscious when he was taken off the ice on a stretcher. He was lost for the series.
Maven’s Thoughts: Most observers only mentioned Patrick’s hit on LaFontaine, but I vividly remember Nilan being an integral protagonist for what was to become one of the biggest controversies of this long-standing rivalry.
If the injury alone wasn’t enough fuel for the fire, a few gallons more of gasoline were administered as the ambulance carrying LaFontaine to the hospital received some rough treatment from Rangers fans as it attempted to exit the Garden which it eventually did but not without fury from without and within.
About to lose the game, 2-1, the Islanders prepared for the final face-off as the clock showed only two seconds remaining. Arbour chose to send two of his toughest players, Bomber Baumgartner and Mick Vukota, out for the draw. Sure enough, Vukota went after Rangers defenseman Jeff Bloemberg while Bomber blitzed forward Kris King. Even goalies Fitzpatrick and Richter got involved.
What surprised some onlookers was that Bloemberg did not retaliate as he was pummeled by Vukota. Only later was it learned that Bloemberg played the pacifist because of his Christian beliefs.
Meanwhile, a war of words erupted in several precincts. Rangers GM Smith – given his first hockey job by Arbour – ripped the Islanders coach for dispatching Vukota and Baumgartner in the waning seconds. On the other side – with LaFontaine’s series-ending injury in mind -- the Islanders believed that it was necessary for their coach to make his point that the club would not be intimidated.
In a sense the league sided with the home club; Vukota was suspended for ten games and Baumgartner for one. NHL officials noted that were it not for “the coach’s exemplary history,” Arbour would have been more severely chastised.
Still, NHL President John Ziegler called the Islanders’ actions “shameful, disgraceful, and degrading” but added that those adjectives, “fall short of the mark.”
“They (the Rangers) are always lily-white,” snapped Arbour, “and we’re always the guys in the black hats.”
MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Defending Arbour, I became enveloped in the dispute a day later while appearing on Bill Mazer’s WFAN program. The show emanated from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant on Central Park South. It preceded The FAN’s 3 p.m. show featuring Chris (Mad Dog) Russo and Mike Francesa.
About five minutes before signing off, Mazer introduced Russo and Francesa while I still was with Bill at the restaurant microphones. Russo immediately ripped Arbour’s handling of the final seconds to a point where I found his remarks distasteful.
We became embroiled in a heated argument that soon included Francesa and would have continued endlessly had Mazer’s show not concluded. By this time Bill clearly was surprised – likely upset as well – by the fooferaw but bade me a fond good-bye.
I then got on my bicycle, pedaled through Central Park and arrived at my West 110th Street apartment about 45 minutes later. My wife, Shirley, told me that the phone was “ringing off its hooks” and I soon knew why. Once Russo and Francesa started their show they began criticizing me in no uncertain terms and did so on their following program.
However, the postscript is hilarious. That June the folks at SportsChannel decided to give Russo his own show. As a promotional gimmick I played a game of one-on-one floor hockey with Mad Dog. (I won.) Before we went out and played we chatted in the locker room of the gym and became “friends.”
And, yes, I did appear on their program a few years later during a Rangers-Devils playoff series and a few other of their shows.
Once the decibel count had receded the games continued and Neilson’s sextet took Game Two at The Garden, 5-2. Now it was time for the Islanders to once and for all step up their performance and pull themselves back in the series.
That’s where Game Three, April 9, 1990, comes into play. As one Islanders fan of the Jewish faith, Daniel Friedman, put it, “The game fell on the first night of Passover so it was fitting that the Isles managed to engineer a ‘miracle’ of their own.”
Considering the uprising that took place in Game One and the post-game eruptions, it was not surprising that blood was boiling on both sides of the rink long before Game Three began in Uniondale. Nassau County police officers maintained a significant presence outside the arena and explained why although everyone already knew.
“We’ve had some problems at Islanders-Rangers games,” said officer Bob Turk. “On St.Patrick’s Day there were some pretty good fights.”
For a change Islanders fans had reason to cheer. Less than two minutes into the opening period, Brent Sutter scored a power play goal but before the ten-minute mark Troy Mallette had tied it for the Rangers. The Blueshirts took the lead in the middle frame when James Patrick exploited a five-on-three power play and Bernie Nicholls added another power play goal to up the margin to 3-1.
But the Islanders weren’t dead yet. Trailing by two in the third, they received back-to-back goals from Patrick Flatley and Hubie McDonough within a 1:22 span of the third period to knot the count at three.
MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Without LaFontaine, the Isles offense was thin but Flatley continued to play clutch hockey and McDonough showed why he was one of the most underappreciated acquisitions Bill Torrey ever made. With the game tied 3-3, the Coliseum had turned into Club Bedlam.
The third period ended with the teams still even and the animosity level as high as it had been at the end of Game One. But the feuding, fussin’ and fighting did not stop with regulation play. The most devastating hit of the night was leveled by Mallette who rammed Jeff Norton head-first into the glass. Norton was knocked unconscious while the Ranger was escorted out of the contest with a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct.
“That hit was vicious,” said Baumgartner. “The potential for injury was much higher than anything Mick and I did in that (first game) fight.”
Mallette’s penalty left the Rangers shorthanded with the game still deadlocked into the second overtime period and for a change Islanders fans could exit with smiles. Just 59 seconds had elapsed when Brent Sutter -- converting a Jeff Finley pass – re-directed the rubber past goalie John Vanbiesbrouck.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I vividly recall walking through the Coliseum parking lot with a conspicuously uplifting feeling and the hope that the series would be long and possibly fruitful for the Isles. But I also had a realistic sense that power play goals such as Sutter’s do not happen often and when I got into the car I said to myself, “Brother, enjoy the moment.”
Revenge was sweet but short-lived for the Islanders. The Rangers trounced them 6-1 and 6-5 to annex the series in five games.
Nobody capsulated the bitter feelings about the series better than James Patrick. "Things happen," concluded the Rangers defenseman. "Crazy things. Bad things. There's something special about our rivalry."
James could say that again and nobody familiar with the Islanders or the Rangers would dispute his assertion!