New York vs. L.A. can be as big as it gets
New York’s Mats Zuccarello skates past the Stanley Cup Finals logo painted on the ice during practice Tuesday before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Rangers and Kings will begin their series tonight in Los Angeles.
The last time New York and Los Angeles teams met in a big championship final, the Dodgers found themselves up against a pitcher who had undergone Tommy John surgery.
How long has it been? Well, here’s a clue: The lefty on the mound was Tommy John himself.
Thirty three years after the Dodgers won a World Series against John and the Yankees, L.A. and New York finally meet again. This time it’s on the ice, with the teams from the country’s two biggest cities squaring off in the Stanley Cup final.
It may not bring thoughts back of Willis Reed limping onto the court, willing his team to a win in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Or Reggie Jackson hitting three home runs in one game in 1977 as the Yankees beat the Dodgers.
The Big Apple and Hollywood don’t have any championship history in hockey, but there’s some buzz on both coasts for the first New York-Los Angeles major sports final since 1981.
“The big markets, that adds another level to the excitement of the finals here,” said the Rangers’ Dominic Moore. “I know New York is excited.”
So is Tommy Lasorda, who managed the Dodgers to their last win over the Yankees and is friends with Kings executive Luc Robitaille.
“I’ll be rooting for them, no doubt,” Lasorda said. “I’m so impressed with what the Kings have accomplished through these playoffs. Even if they don’t beat the Rangers they’ve got to go down in history of hockey with one of the greatest teams ever the way they’ve performed.”
Why the New York-L.A. matchup hasn’t happened any sooner can only be chalked up to the vagaries of sports. Certainly when the Lakers and Knicks met three times in four years for the NBA title in the early 1970s, there were high expectations the rivals would square off again. And when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the third World Series in five years between the teams, it seemed like they would trade championships for some time.
That World Series thrilled a lot of people in Los Angeles, which hadn’t won a championship since 1965 when Sandy Koufax was on the mound. But the Yankees beat the Dodgers back-to-back in 1977-78, including the iconic game where Jackson earned the nickname Mr. October by hitting three home runs at Yankee Stadium.
“We were suffering and the guy was making a fool out of us,” Lasorda said. “I was hoping and praying we would get another shot at him.”
Longtime broadcaster Vin Scully said the rivalry between the Dodgers and Yankees was more intense than any other sport because the teams had met so often in the World Series when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and there were still bitter feelings about the Dodgers leaving town. The Dodgers biggest World Series win was arguably in 1963, when they swept the Yankees in four games.
“The ultimate was not only beating the Yankees but sweeping them in four,” Scully said. “And to New York fans it was still the old Brooklyn Dodgers and there was a lot of bitterness toward them.”
The ultimate for Knicks fans was 1970. Without Reed in Game 7 the Knicks figured to have a tough time beating Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. But he suffered a torn thigh muscle in Game 5 and needed an injection just before game time to limp out on the court.
The sight of Reed in uniform sent the 19,500 fans into a frenzy. He scored just four points, but kept Chamberlain in check for a 113-99 win.
The Lakers would go on to beat the Knicks two years later, and lose to them again in 1973. Since then they haven’t met in a championship final.
There’s never been a Super Bowl between New York and L.A. teams and no possibility of one until Los Angeles gets an NFL team.
While the Rangers and Kings have never met in the Stanley Cup finals, teams from Southern California and the New York area have. New Jersey and the Anaheim Ducks played in 2003, and the Kings beat the Devils two years ago.
Still, New York against Los Angeles somehow seems different.
“I think it’s important for the league. This league has done everything for us, I want it to grow,” said Brad Richards of the Rangers. “These matchups are great for the game, and we understand that. It’s great for hockey.”
Despite the matchup of the two biggest cities in the country, executives at NBC had to be rooting for Chicago to advance instead of Los Angeles. Sunday’s Western Conference Game 7 was the most watched non-Stanley Cup Final ever, averaging more than 4.1 million viewers, but a lot more of those were Blackhawks fans than Kings fans.
While nearly 23 percent of all homes with televisions watched in the Chicago area, less than 5 percent of the homes in L.A. were tuned in.
“I would have rather played Chicago, because I think it would have been like old school versus old school,” said Rangers fan Matthew Geraghty, the head chef at Tir Na Nog, an Irish pub across from Madison Square Garden. “I’ve never been to L.A. to watch sports, but I wouldn’t consider it a hockey town.”
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