NBC analyst Ed Olczyk was a member of the last New York Rangers team to win a Stanley Cup in 1994. He understands the pressure that comes with playing on that stage -- especially when you're trying to end a 54-year title drought.
"For 90 percent of that season, we were the best team in the league by far, so we went into those playoffs as heavy favorites to win it all," said Olczyk, who will be in the booth to call the entire 2014 Stanley Cup Final between the Rangers and Kings. "It's hard enough being the front-runner, but when you add in the fact that it was New York, that takes it to a whole different level."
The Rangers won't have the pressure of being a front-runner when the Stanley Cup Final opens Wednesday at Staples Center. And New York's latest drought only spans one generation instead of nearly three, but the fact that the Rangers are squaring off against the Los Angeles Kings gives this championship meeting a unique bi-coastal, big market flavor.
"The buzz and the excitement arises from the fact that they are our two major population centers and two biggest media markets," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said by phone Tuesday. "Here in New York, you can't escape it. Reading the newspapers, hearing the chatter in restaurants, bumping into people on the street, there is a palpable buzz and excitement for the game and when I get to Los Angeles (on Wednesday) I assume it's going to be the same."
New York and L.A. are two of the most iconic cities in the U.S., but that imagery is often a contrast in styles. New York is Wall Street's suits, Madison Ave., Manhattan's staggering skyline, 24-hour dining options and gritty outer boroughs. L.A. is Hollywood, urban sprawl, soul-crushing gridlock, beach weather and that laid-back veneer.
None of that has anything to do with hockey, but it certainly helps build the narrative for this series and guide the camera shots when it comes to capturing iconic imagery.
"I had been in the league 10 years by the time I played for both of those franchises so I had seen it all and knew what to expect," said Olczyk, who played for the Rangers from 1992-95 and the Kings from 1996-97. "But it's definitely culture shock going from one place to the other and I think you're always going to get a 'wow' factor any time New York and L.A. meet."
All the more because there haven't been many meetings. The last time these left and right coast giants squared off for a major pro sports title was in 1981 when the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series to avenge losses to the Yankees in the 1978 and 1977 Series (the Dodgers also beat the Yankees in 1963).
The Knicks and Lakers have met three times in the NBA Finals, with the Lakers winning in 1970 and 1972 and the Knicks winning in 1973. New York and L.A. have never met in a Super Bowl and before this season, they had never met in the Stanley Cup Final.
The television ratings for this year's Cup Final probably won't match last year's Chicago-Boston six-game final that drew an average household rating of 3.3 and an average viewership of 5.8 million — up 83 percent and 91 percent, respectively, from the previous year. NBC Sports reported that Boston posted a staggering 33 rating for Game 6 and Chicago nearly matched it at 30.
By contrast, the Kings only managed a 4.8 rating last Sunday for Game 7 of the Western Conference Final against the Blackhawks on NBC Sports Network (cable) while Chicago posted a 22.7.
But that doesn't mean there's a lack of interest. A smaller rating in Los Angeles still equates to more viewers than the NHL's smaller markets because of L.A.'s massive population, and ticket prices for this Cup Final are approaching Super Bowl numbers in New York.
Rangers fans can expect to pay an average price of $2,424.64 for a seat at Madison Square Garden, according to secondary ticket aggregator TiqIQ. For perspective, the average ticket price for Super Bowl XLVIII this year was $2,567. For Kings fans, tickets are 38 percent cheaper than Rangers tickets, with an average price of $1,506.06.
"You should point out that the ticket prices that are so high are secondary market tickets, as opposed to what the teams are charging, which is much less," Bettman said, laughing. "But it's great hearing all of this because it means the level of our game, the competitive balance and the entertainment value are very high right now."
Besides, there is a bigger picture here that goes beyond television ratings. Building the game in non-traditional markets, including the Sunbelt, has long been a Bettman project -- one for which he has received widespread criticism from many who ignore the reality of how long it takes to build a generation of fans and truly embed a sport in a city's fabric.
That's not to say the experiment will be successful everywhere. For example, Atlanta failed twice as a hockey market, for a variety of reasons, most recently the lack of viable ownership.
But the more Sunbelt teams win and the more they stand in the national spotlight, the better off the league will be, Bettman believes, because it raises the profile of teams in those markets. Given the league's record revenue, largely stable ownership groups, a salary cap that promotes parity (the NHL has gone longer than any of the four major pro sports without a repeat champ) and a revenue-sharing system that has helped achieve the aforementioned stability, it's hard to argue with the Bettman-era results.
If the Kings win a second Cup in three years, the belief is that L.A. will get behind them even more and spawn a generation of fans who have had nothing else to cheer about for a while. The Lakers are a mess and have been for the better part of the decade. The Clippers are still defined by the Donald Sterling saga. The Dodgers haven't won a title in 26 years and the NFL hasn't had a team in L.A. in 19 years.
"You're talking about a team that has been to three straight Western Conference Finals," Olczyk said of the Kings. "If they win a second Cup in three years in the age of the salary cap, that's as close to dynasty as you get."
The Kings will surely be celebrated if they win the Cup as expected, but in New York, the reaction will be more dramatic if the Rangers win. Just ask Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, who played for the Rangers from 1978-1989 and served as the team's assistant general manager from 1996 to 2007.
"New York is all about extremes," Maloney said. "When you win, you're the greatest thing that ever walked the planet and when you lose, you're the lowest thing that ever crawled the planet."
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