Kings-Rangers a just reward for growth

This will be the first championship in pro sports to include the two largest American cities since the 1981 World Series. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Quick, scan back through your memory bank: When did the NHL last have all of this? You know, such popularity, such mainstream appeal and such relevance.

An enduring playoff series like the one just contested by Los Angeles and Chicago will help do that for you, as will the upcoming megamarket Stanley Cup final between the Kings and New York Rangers. A memorable spring seems to have put the little hockey league that could on the verge of something more.

The sight of Charles Barkley wearing a Patrick Kane sweater and high-fiving other fans in Chicago or Robert DeNiro waving a white rally towel at Madison Square Garden or a good portion of Hollywood populating the lower bowl at the Staples Center for the Kings, not the Lakers, provide snapshots for what seems to be an underlying trend.

The NHL has already generated record revenues this season and is expecting to draw sizeable television numbers for the first championship in pro sports to include the two largest American cities since the 1981 World Series. There aren’t precise metrics for it, but what the league has really been creating is buzz.

Consider it the reward for — or the culmination of — a concerted effort to grow. Say what you will about the outdoor games, the 24/7-styled all-access programs and all-star fantasy drafts, but they’ve helped the NHL reach new fans.

Now, the league has the complete attention of two sprawling cities for two weeks.

What an opportunity.

Those are two massive bandwagons to start filling up and it won’t take long.

To stand inside Madison Square Garden, five floors above Penn Station in Manhattan, and feel the building shake as the Rangers eliminated the Montreal Canadiens last week was something special. The fans chanted, “We want the Cup! We want the Cup!” and it sure sounded like they meant it.

The Kings, meanwhile, are the team that won’t die. There was a certain novelty to their Stanley Cup win in 2012 because it brought together a relatively small pack of longtime diehards with a group of people embracing the sport for the first time. Everyone knows what to expect this time around.

As Los Angeles played long into the night on Sunday, finally eliminating Chicago on an Alec Martinez goal more than 65 minutes into Game 7, the mythology around this team grew. That made it three straight deciding games won on the road during these playoffs and gave the Kings a chance to join the Blackhawks as the only teams of this generation with multiple championships.

“We’ve tried to earn respect the respect of the league,” veteran forward Justin Williams told reporters. “L.A. is not just a place to come and play a hockey game and work on your tan. … We want to put L.A. on the map, and put it significantly on the map with regards to hockey.”

What this Stanley Cup final is, ultimately, is a chance for the NHL to make a bigger imprint on the sporting landscape across North America. The Rangers have already been given a place on the cover of the most recent Sports Illustrated. That’s about as rare as a defenceman scoring five goals in a game.

The fact that all of this has come within 17 months of a lockout is pretty amazing. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was right when he defiantly stated that fans would return after the latest labour war, but even he couldn’t have asked for much more than the Chicago-Boston and New York-Los Angeles finals the league has seen since then.

All things considered, this particular championship series should establish a new high-water mark for the circuit — just as the Rangers’ Cup run did back in 1994. There is optimism, growth and opportunity in the air.

As for the final itself, the prevailing thought suggests that New York can’t hang with the class of the West. Maybe so. But with Henrik Lundqvist in net, Ryan McDonagh running the show from the back end and a balanced four-line attack, they can’t be counted out completely.

“Great goaltending, great defence, great forwards, great special teams,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said Sunday when asked about the Rangers strengths. “We’re up against it again.”

The turnaround will be quick before Wednesday’s opener in Los Angeles. Both teams have played a lot of hockey — they’ve won five Games 7 between them this spring — and might need a game or two to reach the emotional levels they’ve been accustomed to.

However, with all of the spectacle and hype surrounding the matchup you can bet that it will arrive eventually.

It should be quite a sight to behold.

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