Why the L.A. Kings, New York Rangers 'Hollywood vs. Broadway' Rivalry Is Good for Hockey
As the two teams prepare to fuel an East Coast-West Coast rivalry in the Stanley Cup Finals that will boost ratings and elevate fan loyalties, NHL analysts and players told THR why the historic matchup is so important.
In terms of choosing two teams to round off an already captivating — and money-making — hockey season, the NHL couldn't have written a better final chapter, as the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers embark on their battle for the championship.
Before the puck hits the ice on Wednesday at 5 p.m. PT for Game 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals, both teams, on-air broadcasters and a slew of sports-hungry reporters gathered in the Staples Center to talk about the Hollywood-Broadway showdown.
Marking the first professional sports league final between New York and Los Angeles franchises in 33 years, NBC is expecting the series to be a ratings draw, especially coming in the wake of the Kings-Chicago Blackhawks Game 7 on Sunday, which averaged 4.137 million viewers and peaked at 5.5 million, making it the most-watched NHL game and most-watched non-Olympic program ever on NBCSN.
The Kings played a remarkable 21 out of a possible of 21 games in the first three rounds of the playoffs, making them the first team in history to win three Game 7s on the road and still advance.
"Chicago and L.A. certainly grabbed the imagination of fans — and they are two major cities and two powerful franchises," Lisa Seltzer, Stanley Cup playoffs director for NBC Sports, tells The Hollywood Reporter, explaining that in her job, regardless of team affiliations, "We always root for a seven game series."
The close games and a new playoff format that had teams play their division rivals in the first round amped up the excitement. "All the different ingredients have boosted the popularity of hockey," explains Seltzer. "You had the Ducks and the Kings playing each other [in the second round]. It is unbelievable to have that level of matchup so early on. Plus, the lead-in of the Winter Olympics certainly helped."
The last time L.A. and New York battled for a championship was in 1981 when the Dodgers defeated the Yankees in six games to take the World Series, and ESPN NHL analyst Barry Melrose tells THR that this showdown has all the ingredients to be just as historic.
"They are very famous franchises. Obviously, New York is one of the original six teams; they've been around 80 or 90 years. L.A. has been here for 47 years. You've got the Big Apple and Hollywood. Aside from that, they are great sports cities; they've got baseball, hockey, basketball. It is the perfect scenario," he explains.
As to whether it is a dream matchup, "It's one of them — Chicago would have been great, too, as would Boston. If you can get an original six team in the Finals, plus another strong market, then that benefits all sports — not just the NHL. But they definitely hit a home run this year," he says, using a baseball analogy.
"You have to be the best in the country, you want to be the most famous city, you want bragging rights and something you can hang your hat on — so without a doubt L.A. and New York have a big rivalry."
Fellow ESPN anchor Steve Levy agrees with his broadcast partner of 20 years. "It is the NHL's dream, I think, not just because of TV ratings, as Chicago's ratings locally were through the roof, but in terms of the national media attention it will get — this is a huge victory for the National Hockey League. Casual fans will get into it because it's a championship and because there is a lot of glitz and glamour, so it's really good for the game of hockey."
With L.A. getting such a serious dose of hockey fever that even iconic Randy's Donuts was transformed into a giant hockey puck last week, Melrose reveals that the city's devotion dates back to when he coached the Kings and star Wayne Gretzky to their first trip to the Finals in 1993 when they lost to the Montreal Canadiens.
"The East Coast fan base is totally different [from] the West Coast. You have the surfing dude out here and the beautiful weather, the sunshine and everyone is gorgeous. In New York, it's cold and everyone is grouchy all the time, the fans are gruff — there are two totally different types of people between New York and L.A. It is like that in every facet of life," he adds.
"The knock on the Dodger fans is showing up late for the game and leaving early. That won't be the case for these games, I am sure," Levy goes on to say. "People will be showing up early; the Staples Center will be rocking. I just hope the Kings fans haven't gotten spoiled by the recent success two years ago."
When asked who will take the Cup in this matchup, Levy predicts a West Coast victory: "The Kings are much deeper — they are a heavy favorite. I've heard people say they are going to sweep [the Rangers]. I think they will probably do it in six. The Kings are star-studded from top to bottom, they play hard and they hit hard. The Rangers haven't seen anything like that," he says.
"The Rangers' best player is their goal keeper Henrik Lundqvist, but the difference in this series is the Rangers always had the advantage in goal and now they don't because the Kings have Jonathan Quick. Also, Drew Doughty for the Kings is probably one of the best defense men in the NHL."
While the media is focusing on the transcontinental rivalry, the players are keeping their eyes firmly on the puck. "It is great that we're playing L.A., but at the same time, it doesn't matter who your opponent is. It's going to be very exciting and what every kid dreams of … it's the biggest stage in the hockey world," Rangers right wing Derek Dorsett tells THR. "There are pressures in the game but we're not looking at past histories," he adds.
"It's all for broadcasting; it doesn't affect us," agrees Kings' Matt Greene. "Fans are great everywhere. We have a real good base here and there's passion in New York, too. It is two big markets that get a chance to play each other, and we're going create some buzz. It's fun for the sport and it's a good rivalry. You get it in basketball [with the Lakers and Knicks] so it's good for us," he added.
As for the Kings' emotional rollercoaster during the recent tight and grueling games, Doughty said: "It hasn't been great but at the same time, we're over that already and we're in the Finals, which is where we want to be. We'll not forget any of that stuff and we'll use that confidence — but we're over whatever we did in those last two series."
Game 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals airs on NBC at 5 p.m. PT on Wednesday, with Game 2 at 4.15 p.m. PT on Saturday, immediately following NBC's coverage of the Belmont Stakes and California Chrome's bid at the Triple Crown.