For most people in the world, today is just another Monday, just another June 14th. But for New York Rangers’ fans, it’s the anniversary of the day that “will last a lifetime,” in the unfortunately likely prophetic words of Sam Rosen, the day that the New York Rangers, after 54 years of futility, finally, finally won the Stanley Cup.
(This year, it’s also the day that season subscription renewals are due, much earlier than usual. Is it the Rangers’ idea of a joke, to have the money due on the Cup anniversary? To paraphrase Rick Blaine in Casablanca, I wouldn’t mention the Stanley Cup if I were you, front office—given the current state of the team, it’s poor salesmanship.)
Stanley Cup tradition dictates that each member of the winning team gets the Cup for a day, to do with it what he wants—take it to his hometown, share it with friends, hoist it overhead on top of a mountain, take it to a strip club. Oh, wait—that’s not allowed to happen any more. Because after the Rangers’ Cup-winning summer, the Stanley Cup was given its very own personal bodyguard, Mike Bolt. Said Bolt recently in Time, “’The Rangers were the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Ah, they do so much to make us proud.
Fortunately, most Cup winners treat the trophy with the respect and awe that it deserves, and many choose to share it with the public, bringing it to the fans. And that’s what Ed Olczyk did on a June afternoon in 1994, when he brought the Cup to Belmont Park.
Olczyk rode the wave of hockey popularity generated by the 1980 gold medal win, playing on the 1984 U.S Olympic team and getting drafted third overall by his hometown Black Hawks that same year. Following his stint with the Black Hawks, he played in Canada for seven years, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets, before landing in New York during the 1992-93 season.
An injury limited Olczyk to 37 games during the Cup-winning season, and he was one of the “Black Aces,” the group of Rangers that watched most of the playoffs from high above the ice. NHL rules stipulate that a player must have played in at least 40 games during the regular season or in at least one game of the Stanley Cup final in order to have his name engraved on the Cup. Olczyk met neither criterion, but his off-ice contributions and team spirit led to his teammates petitioning the league and as a result of their efforts, Olczyk got his name on the coveted trophy.
Growing up in the Chicago area, Olczyk started going to the track and betting on horses when he was a teenager; as a professional hockey player, he continued to follow racing and branched out from betting to ownership, and when his day with the Cup came in the summer of ’94, he headed to Belmont Park, to share the Cup with fans and raise money for backstretch charities.
“I got there at about 9:30 in the morning and we put the Cup near the winner’s circle,” Olczyk remembered. Fans could have their photos taken with Ed and the Cup, and Olczyk recalled that people lined up until that evening.
The second floor of Belmont’s clubhouse features photographs of great Belmont moments; in one of them, a young Nick Zito looks on as the Cup winner shares the trophy with that year’s Derby winner, Go for Gin, a moment that outraged some Cup purists, who cried foul at the idea of a horse eating from the sacred Cup.
“There was no food in there,” Olczyk maintains 16 years later. “I had carrots in my hand, but there were none in the Cup. But I’ll tell you: there’s been a lot worse in that Cup than a horse’s mouth.
“It was great to meet Nick, great to meet the Derby champion. Nick was so kind to me, and it was such a great setting, to have the Cup there with the Derby winner.”
Since his retirement, Olczyk has maintained ties to both sports that he loves. He coached the Pittsburgh Penguins for parts of two seasons, and for the last four years he’s served as broadcaster for a variety of outlets, including NBC and Versus; he was on the team that broadcast the Olympics from Vancouver. He’s also the analyst for the team he grew up watching, the Chicago Black Hawks.
Olczyk can trace his broadcasting roots back to racing; during the 1994 lockout, NYRA chief operating office and hockey fan Hal Handel, then working in New Jersey racing, invited him to the Meadowlands to do some race analysis. “That was my introduction to television,” Olczyk says. Having spent part of his hockey career in Winnipeg, Olczyk has also done appearances at Assiniboia Downs. “It was like being a kid in a candy store,” he says, “getting to talk about racing at the racetrack.”
Olczyk’s interest in racing made headlines a year ago, when he hit a Pick 6 at Hollywood Park, collecting $500,000 from a $166 ticket. When asked which is better, hitting a Pick 6 or winning a Stanley Cup, he laughed and protested, “That’s not fair! The Pick 6 was more recent, but you don’t get a ring for it.
“The Pick 6 was a thrill. I’d been at the NHL awards the day before, and I should have hit it then: I went five for six, and if I’d hit, I’d have been the only one. I had a feeling that someone good was going to happen, and I was pretty excited, and very proud.”
He focuses his handicapping on California tracks and the smaller meets like Saratoga and Keeneland, with occasional forays to the western Canada tracks. “I play the Pick 6 a lot, but not all the time. I’m a big believer in the Pick 3 and Pick 4, which are great value at tracks with full fields. I love playing the NYRA guaranteed pools. I used to be a daily double guy, then trifecta and supers. I believe in value and taking a stand, so that you don’t have to invest a lot.”
He considers himself an “unsolicited spokesperson” for the sport. “The biggest message that I try to get out,” he says, “is that most people think that you’re going against Santa Anita or the Meadowlands or Belmont; I try to convince them that they’re betting against the guy next to them, not against the house.
“Racing hasn’t done a good enough job of educating the public about the way gambling works, about the pari-mutuel bet. The money’s not all going to the house; it’s divided up among the bettors. The track is a broker, which is different from playing against the house at casinos. I’d like to see the game educate people more about betting.”
Over the last few months, Olczyk’s hockey life has been an exciting one; a former Olympian himself, he said that it was a “privilege” to call the gold medal game between the United States and Canada and to “live it as an American.” Olczyk left home at 16 to play hockey in Canada; he played for Canadian teams for a big part of his career, and his oldest son was born in Canada. But his rooting interests were clear.
“No divided loyalties at all,” he declared. “I cheered for the United States, and I picked them to win. It’s great that there are more American players now; 1980 opened up doors. Players like Tom Barrasso, Phil Housley, Chris Chelios, Bobby Carpenter—they took advantage of it, and I was lucky to be a part of it, a part of that upswing.”
As a fan, Olczyk came out of the Olympics disappointed, but his broadcasting and rooting interests would intersect again before too long, when the team for which he had rooted his whole life and with which he began and ended his playing career made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, winning Lord Stanley’s Cup last Wednesday night. The Black Hawks had last won the Cup in 1961.
“I’m a lifelong Hawks fan, and the team broadcaster—I’m very happy for the team, the organization, the city and the fans,” he said in a recent e-mail. He served as emcee for last week’s celebration, honoring the accomplishments of the team.
Rangers’ fans can only look on wistfully at the Hawks’ championship; another Original Six team, the Black Hawks have a fan base that suffered as Rangers’ fan did through decades of losing. Today, as we contemplate forking over thousands of dollars for the privilege of enduring another mediocre season, we can only be envious of Chicago, of its talent-loaded roster, of its youthful superstars.
Today, on June 14th, we’ll remember and we’ll celebrate a little, and we’ll raise a glass to that magical 1994 team, and to Eddie O., who brought spirit and class to the team, and who brought the Stanley Cup to Belmont Park. “That was a great day,” he reminisced, “and I hope some day to get to do that again in New York.”
So do we, Eddie; so do we.