IT SEEMS LIKE THE GOOD OLD DAYS IN THE NHL, AND NOT JUST BECAUSE THE STANLEY CUP FINALS ARE BACK IN NEW YORK CITY FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 20 YEARS. WITH LABOR PEACE, RECORD REVENUE AND SCINTILLATING GAMES, THE LEAGUE IS HOTTER THAN EVER
THE MADISON SQUARE GARDEN blues are both a vantage point and a state of mind. The blue seats in the Garden's upper bowl are the soul of the Rangers, a refuge for the club's truest and, in a way, most sophisticated fans. The denizens of the blues are tribal, cathartic, rambunctious, occasionally tasteless and generally angry, which is fine because anyone who isn't upset after just one Stanley Cup in 74 years hasn't been paying attention.
The Garden's blue seats mirror the NHL itself, which is many things—seething, passionate, riotous—but rarely content. From lockouts to goal droughts, from on-ice assaults to inconsistent officiating, the hockey season often seems to be an eight-month complaint. There is no league that foments argument like the NHL. Someone is always criticizing something.
But although there was, as ever, something to criticize as the Stanley Cup finals shifted to New York City on Monday for Game 3—the lack of a goalie-interference call in the third period of Game 2 that cost the Rangers a goal and perhaps the game (as in Game 1, the Kings won in overtime despite never leading in regulation)—the NHL found itself in a rare place. A happy place.
Good times. Good times. The playoffs have been riveting. The revenue stream is flowing. Two-goal deficits have been erased as routinely as line combinations on a dressing-room whiteboard. There has been just one fight since April 29, cavemen having been given the spring off (there have been nine fights in the postseason, down from 15 last year and 19 in 2011--12). After the animus of the '12--13 lockout, Kings center Jarret Stoll says the only time the work stoppage is now mentioned in the dressing room is when players muse about how out of shape they got. The NHL scored an off-ice hat trick last month at the 2014 Sports Business Awards when it was chosen league of the year, Commissioner Gary Bettman was named executive of the year and the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium was selected as event of the year, proving the NHL can deliver award-winning hype and hypothermia. Now the league is in the midst of a white-knuckle, big-market series, pushing the quaint Tampa Bay--Calgary ('04), Carolina-Edmonton ('06) and Anaheim-Ottawa ('07) finals deeper into memory. Not even a second Stanley Cup in three years is going to weave the Kings into the fabric of Southern California, but hockey has found a niche in the L.A. market—the team has sold out its last 119 games, dating back to Dec. 3, 2011—as surely as it has in New York City.
"I think hockey's in a great place," says Stoll, an NHL regular since 2003--04. "Best I've seen it. So many exciting teams out there. The league's faster. The hockey's better. The ratings. The revenues. The attendance. And this year's playoffs have been incredible."
"These matchups have been great for the game," says New York center Brad Richards, the 2004 Conn Smythe winner. "The quality of the players is getting ridiculous, and I mean that in a good way."
And so after three overtime periods, two Rangers breakaway goals, two Kings comebacks (each from two goals down), 152 shots and 179 hits—not to mention a hubristic Game 1 curl-and-drag goal-costing gaffe at the Rangers' blue line by audacious L.A. defenseman Drew Doughty, and his spectacular recompense a period later when he scored a tying goal using a similar move—the NHL was playing in New York City during the second week of June for the first time in 20 years.
A return to the scene of its prime.
THE COVER line of the June 20, 1994, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED read, WHY THE NHL'S HOT AND THE NBA'S NOT. The magazine may have produced more famous covers, but the Hot/Not issue remains a touchstone in hockey circles, maybe because the sport got only 10 nationwide SI covers in the ensuing two decades (not counting Slap Shot's Hanson Brothers in 2007). The NHL actually was mildly sexy in 1994—the Rangers had won a seven-game semifinal against the Devils, headlined by Mark Messier's guarantee of victory before Game 6 and subsequent hat trick, and they were nearing the end of a compelling seven-game series against Pavel Bure and the Canucks—but the cover and E.M. Swift's story were aimed less at the NHL than at the NBA. With Michael Jordan off chasing curveballs in Birmingham and the Knicks and the Rockets slogging through the Finals, the NBA seemed devoid of charm. Mark Mulvoy, then SI's managing editor, says he wanted to "tweak" the NBA with the cover, although "the fact that a [hockey] team from New York City was in the finals for the first time in like 50 years was most important as far as city folk were concerned." Before plunging into a ruinous lockout that fall and the Dead Puck era that followed, the NHL momentarily was hot compared with the NBA.
The NHL's hotness today stands on its own; the NBA, featuring Miami's LeBron James and the advanced stylings of the Spurs, is also hot (sidebar, p. 38). Context, of course, is in order. Game 7 of the Western Conference finals between the Kings and the Blackhawks averaged 4.14 million viewers, the most-watched NHL game in the league's nine-year history on NBCSN. But it also was only the eighth-highest-rated program on cable for the week ending June 1, behind seven games: six of basketball and one of Thrones. Until hell freezes over and everyone has to skate to the mini-mart, hockey will be that other sport, even if the NHL has grander aspirations.
"That's the big difference now: Everything is big," says Luc Robitaille, the Hall of Fame left wing who is L.A.'s president of business operations. "It used to be everything was small. When we had an All-Star Game, we thought, Keep it small. Now it's big events, outdoor games, HBO 24/7. Everyone's figured out, including the players, that this way they'll be making more money."
SHORTLY AFTER 3 p.m. on June 4, Bettman slid behind the microphone in the Staples Center for his annual pre--Stanley Cup finals press conference. He wore a dark blue suit, a demure lighter blue tie with white dots and an air of studied confidence. These sessions can be noisy, but Bettman, lawyerly in his precision, never seemed more in control than last week. For 34 minutes he took batting-practice fastballs and went yard. With almost nothing to assail—labor tranquillity is assured for at least six more seasons—most of the inquiries were about the future of a hockey World Cup, the NHL's Olympic participation and expansion plans. Asked about the impending sale of another Staples Center resident, Bettman replied, "If the Clippers are worth $2 billion, we have plenty of franchises that are worth that, if not more." It didn't even sound smug.
The business of hockey during Bettman's 21 years in charge has bloomed—revenues are up ninefold, from $400 million in 1993 to north of $3.5 billion this season—but the caliber of hockey during his tenure has been sometimes maddening (as has a total of 2,208 games lost during the league's three lockouts since 1994--95). Not even the 2004--05 rule changes, designed to open a sclerotic game, succeeded in restoring offense to an acceptable level. After a brief increase in '05--06 the NHL's average goals per game this season was 5.34, about where it was in '02--03. But whether through serendipity, small sample size, indifferent goaltending, fatigue or bursts of creativity, a spate of goals has made the NHL look lustrous through three-plus playoff rounds. A New York City--Los Angeles finals has obvious business appeal, but Bettman acknowledged before Game 1, "If this series is going to resonate, it's going to be because of what takes place on the ice."
Two hours later, after Wayne Gretzky had dropped the ceremonial first puck and South Park character Cartman had urged on the Staples Center crowd, the Rangers and the Kings opened the Stanley Cup finals by going precisely five minutes without a whistle—it was hair-on-fire hockey. The first period would yield two breakaway New York goals (one shorthanded) and 27 total shots. The match hurtled along. There were no whistles in overtime before winger Justin Williams scored at 4:36 to give the Kings a 3--2 victory. And even that stretch was not as big a blur as the first overtime between Chicago and Los Angeles in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals seven days earlier. Twenty minutes of clock time took 26 minutes in real time, two or so of which were spent grooming the United Center ice. There was an eight-minute stretch without a whistle. At its most riveting, in overtime, an NHL game moves with even greater speed because there are no TV breaks. At its most dramatic, in the final minute of a tight game, the NBA, with incessant timeouts and free throws, measures time with coffee spoons.
The excitement continued in Game 2, as the Kings worked without a net, trailing 2--0, 3--1 and 4--2 before scoring twice in the third period—winger Dwight King made contact in the crease with Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist on the Kings' third goal—to force overtime. At 10:26 of the second extra session L.A. right wing Dustin Brown tipped in a Willie Mitchell shot from the point for a 5--4 victory and an NHL-record third straight game in which the Kings had overcome a two-goal deficit to win. (This was the 15th multigoal comeback of the 2014 playoffs; last season there were eight.) The playoff scoring average through Game 2 stood at 5.66, a healthy increase over the past two postseasons (5.02 and 4.84). Why the surge? Before '13--14 the NHL shrunk the allowable size of goalie pads, but Kay Whitmore, the league's senior manager of hockey operations, could identify only one or two playoff goals this season that might have been affected by pad length. "I think it's just a matter of teams like Anaheim, L.A. and Chicago having incredibly talented players," Whitmore says. "And coaches who aren't afraid to pressure the puck up ice." The Kings' Stoll thinks it is far too early to proclaim that full-bore hockey is the new normal but adds, "It's been nice."
WHEN BETTMAN said, "By any measure, this may have been the most successful season on and off the ice in NHL history," he was referencing, in part, the six outdoor games that were played in 2013--14. The Kings were hosts for one in Dodger Stadium in January, an extravaganza that was basically three elephants shy of the triumphal march in Aida. L.A., then in the midst of a six-game stretch in which they scored just three goals, lost 3--0 to the Ducks.
It took the Kings four more weeks to bolster their offense. Within a 15-day period general manager Dean Lombardi turned over half of his top six forwards, recalling Tanner Pearson, 21, and Tyler Toffoli, 22, from the minors in late February and acquiring three-time 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik, soon to be an unrestricted free agent, from the Blue Jackets at the March 5 trade deadline for loose change found between the sofa cushions (i.e., winger Matt Frattin and two draft picks). Two years ago Lombardi had made late-season moves before L.A. made its run to the Cup, trading for center Jeff Carter and recalling King and forward Jordan Nolan. But Pearson and Toffoli are game-changing wingers, not bottom-sixers in the mold of King and Nolan. The 2014 additions allowed coach Darryl Sutter to set his team up the middle: first-line center Anze Kopitar, Carter (shifted from wing to play between the two kids), Stoll and Mike Richards, now a $7 million fourth-liner who kills penalties and who has the luxury of facing lesser defensemen. The 2012 Cup--winning Kings were a hulking group that dominated possession and created goals off the cycle, muscling pucks from the corners to the front of the net. This year's L.A. team still does that, but the rebuilt second line and Gaborik, whose playoff-leading 13th goal forced overtime in Game 2 against the Rangers, give Los Angeles more opportunities to score off the rush. "Three or four guys changed the dynamics," Brown says. "We still have a lot of success off the cycle, but we're more of an attack threat than we were in 2012." The Kings have upped their scoring in the playoffs by 1.11 goals per game, to a league-best 3.52. In a testament to L.A.'s depth the postseason's top three overall point scorers—Kopitar (five goals, 20 assists), Carter (nine, 14) and Williams (eight, 15)—play on separate lines.
The Kings might not move the needle on national television, or even move quite as rapidly as the Rangers, whose meep-meep speed—exemplified by wingers Carl Hagelin in the opener and Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello in Game 2—has been dazzling. In an 11-second segment during the frantic end of regulation of Game 1, Hagelin, who had scored the shorthanded breakaway in the first period, almost scored on another Los Angeles power play before scooting back to help Lundqvist foil Carter's wraparound.
Maybe the sequence wasn't as compelling as a basketball star's muscle cramp, but that crazy final minute ... man, it seemed to last 60 seconds.
On second thought, compared with the NBA, the NHL still looks good.
"By any measure," said Bettman, "this may have been the most successful season on and off the ice in NHL history."
Average viewers for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, the second most for a Cup opener in history.
Average goals per game in the Stanley Cup playoffs, an increase of 0. 64 over the 2013 postseason.
Fights in the 2014 playoffs, down from 15 last year and 19 in 2012.
Photograph by David E. Klutho Sports Illustrated
KINGS' RAIN Streamers sailed from the rafters of the Staples Center as fans celebrated Justin Williams's OT winner in Game 1.
Photographs by David E. Klutho Sports Illustrated
CROWD-PLEASER Rangers fans (left) haven't had much to bring them to their feet, but goals like this one by L.A.'s Drew Doughty (8), which tied Game 1, has Bettman all smiles.
ROB TRINGALI FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RANGERS FANS)
[See caption above]
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (GRETZKY)
GREAT GOAL Gretzky (above) dropped the puck before Game 1, and Gaborik (12) put another into the net during the Kings' Game 2 victory.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LUNDQVIST)
[See caption above]