Nearly 20 years after holding the most famous sign in sports history, Steve Zaretsky is watching another Rangers playoff game. He is at Rutt's Hut in Clifton, a classic New Jersey joint whose deep-fried hot dogs have been featured on The Food Network. The Rangers are en route to the Stanley Cup Final, which begins Wednesday in Los Angeles, and that has local fans feeling the Spirit of '94 again. That means reliving the magic moment when the Rangers beat the Canucks 3-2 in Game 7 and silenced the echoes of "1940!" And Steve Zaretsky celebrated with the words that will live in franchise lore forever:
The sign was cited in Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and many more newspapers and magazines. Six words perfectly captured 54 years of championship frustration. So when Steve spots a fellow Rangers fan at Rutt's, it is only natural that the sign will come up in the conversation.
"He was wearing a Ranger hat, and we went over to give him a high five," Steve says. "We start talking about '94 and everything, and the sign. And then he says, 'The guy who held up the sign? That was my dad.'"
This came as news to Zaretsky. It was a family affair, as Steve held the sign with his dad, Dave, while twin brother Michael and his cousin Gary Morris were next to them.
Sure, all Rangers fans want to feel like they hold a piece of the 1994 Cup in their hearts, but the fan at Rutt's was really stretching. Or really enjoying his beer. Steve pulled out his phone for evidence to set the record straight.
"I showed him the picture and he says, 'Well, maybe it wasn't my dad,'" Steve says.
Steve's dad, Dave, has been a season-ticket holder since 1972. He started with two seats, then added two more in Section 72 to accommodate his boys. Over the years, they made some connections at the Garden, and when the Rangers finally won the Cup, the Zaretsky family was invited to the locker room. They got to see Mike Richter and Alexei Kovalev before the scene got too chaotic and too sweaty.
But in the process, they lost the sign.
The sign was actually a sequel. When the Rangers went down in the 1992 playoffs against the Penguins, Mike Zaretsky held a sign that earned some press coverage:
After the Rangers beat the Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference Final, Steve was kicking around ideas for a new sign. He was working at Wizard Press, a comic book publishing company, at the time, and his friend and coworker, Dan Riley, helped him out.
"There's only one thing that could fit and tell everybody how long we've been waiting: Now I can die in peace,'" Steve says.
He brought the sign to the Garden for Game 5, but Pavel Bure scored twice to help the Canucks stay alive with a 6-3 win. The series shifted back to Vancouver for Game 6. Steve brought the sign to a viewing party at the Garden where fans watched the Rangers lose 4-1 on the JumboTron.
Then it was June 14, 1994. Game 7. Craig MacTavish took one final defensive-zone faceoff against Bure, and the party was on. Steve, wearing a Rangers sweater, held one end of the sign. Dave, in a yellow shirt, held the other end. Mike is bent over in front of the sign. Cousin Gary is behind Steve, ready to unfold another sign that said, "No more 1940" with a circle and an X through it, which, Steve says, was shown on ESPN.
"You'll notice we're the only ones in the stands with the Stanley Cup champion hats," Steve said. "They weren't on sale yet, but my brother paid one of the vendors with a minute to go in the game. The lady said, 'We don't even know if they won the game yet.'"
Nick Kypreos carried the Cup in front of them, as immortalized in the photo. Steve also remembers Adam Graves and Glenn Healy skating past their section and acknowledging them. Shortly after that, the Zaretsky crew headed to the ice, and then came the invite to the locker room.
"You know the removable seats they use for the Knick games?" Steve says. "There was a whole stack of them outside the locker room. The stack was pretty high, probably seven or eight feet, so I stashed the sign on top of the them, because we wanted to go in the locker room and my brother said, 'Leave it.' When I came out, it was gone. I don't think anybody took it. I think they were just cleaning up and threw it away."
Steve ended up with a nice consolation prize. Richter had left his water bottle on top of the net, and Steve grabbed it. But he says he remembers making a special point after he left the locker room to look for the sign.
"I felt like something was going to come of it," he says.
He was right. The Hockey Hall of Fame called a few weeks later. But the sign was gone, perhaps adding to the mystique of the moment.
In the aftermath, a T-shirt company decided to use the phrase in the sign. Steve wanted to sue, but the laws made it tough to copyright a common phrase. Steve decided to cut his losses by requesting compensation in the form of the shirts. After that, his lawyer discovered a loophole that might give them a chance to win in court, but the response from the T-shirt company's legal department was, "Sorry, your client settled for six dozen shirts."
"When the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, some guy wrote a book called 'Now I Can Die In Peace,'" Steve says, alluding to Bill Simmons. "Now if you Google it, his book shows up first."
Madison Square Garden created an homage outside the arena to its greatest moments, and the sign earned a nice mention.
Steve and Mike, who grew up in Tappan, New York, and now live in Jersey, are 46. Dave is 72. They all work together in the folding carton manufacturing business (cereal boxes and the like). They are still fixtures at the Garden.
"Our seats are pretty much the same," Steve says. "We were more toward the goal line in the corner in '94. Now we're closer to the blue line. Fifth row. We were in the third row in those seats. Now I have two kids, and my brother has two kids, and we have to think of something for a sign. You know everybody is going to copy 'Now I Can Die In Peace.' Like 'Now I Can Die In Peace Again.'"
The story of the sign was included in a recent documentary about the 1994 Rangers. Because of that, more Rangers fans are starting to recognize the Zaretskys.
Steve has set up a website, NowICanDieInPeace.com, which simply displays the photo. It comes in handy when he encounters anyone who might doubt or challenge his claim to fame.
"When I mention we were the ones with the sign, a lot of people go, 'yeah, right,'" Steve says.
If his sons, Ethan, 12, and Adam, 10, are with him when that happens, they are eager to jump in. They are the ones who can actually say what the fan at Rutt's said and have it be true.
"That's when my kids are like, 'Show him picture, dad," Steve says.