DALLAS, June 4, 2014 — The National Hockey League Finals feature the New York Rangers, the Los Angeles Kings, and no villains to root against.
The very mention of New York and Los Angeles in the same sentence is supposed to cause a rivalry. There is supposed to be hatred.
Angelenos supposedly see New Yorkers as loud, brash, obnoxious louts who live like caged animals. New York City is unlivable and the weather is usually miserable.
If the Yankees played the Dodgers in the World Series, the rage would immediately swell up.
If the Knicks played the Lakers for the NBA title, it would be hostile (although less hostile than if the Boston Celtics played the Lakers).
Los Angeles does not have a football team, but playoff games between the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants were battles of finesse against smash mouth. The Los Angeles Raiders battled the New York Jets during their brief sojourn away from Oakland.
So when the New York Rangers play the Los Angeles Kings, there should be hatred and disgust.
Except there is none.
Hatred requires a history. History requires winning. The Lakers and Yankees are loved and despised because they win frequently.
The Rangers and Kings for the most part have been the hockey equivalent of the Chicago Cubs. They have been lovable losers.
The Kings entered the league in 1966. For over a quarter of a century, they were losers.
The Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1940. Then for over a half of a century, they were losers.
The Kings started out with purple and yellow as their colors (true fans would say gold, but it was yellow). They toiled in the shadow of the Lakers. Then they switched to silver and black. They toiled in the shadow of the Raiders. Then they tried a hybrid look of purple and black before going back to silver and black. They never really had their own identity.
The Rangers had to suffer the indignity of the New York Islanders. The Islanders entered the league in 1972. By 1980, the Islanders were on their way to winning four straight championships, routing the Rangers in the conference finals to their dynasty.
In 1993, the Kings made it to the finals for the first time. They won the first game on the road and were winning game two on the road with less than two minutes left. Then came the horrendous “bad stick” call against Marty McSorley. Montreal won three straight games in overtime and then routed the Kings in Los Angeles in Game five.
The Rangers played another archival in the New Jersey Devils in 1994 in what may have been the greatest playoff series in NHL history. Mark Messier became a hero for the ages with help from Stephan Matteau. Games six and seven will be replayed forever, and the Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in another thrilling series that went the distance. The Rangers had exorcised the demons. Then two days later Coach Mike Keenan quit. The Rangers were back to being losers, as the Devils went on to win three championships and become a dynasty.
After decades of futility, everything changed for both of these teams in 2012. Neither of them were expected to do much in the playoffs. The Kings were the lowest ranked seed. What happened next was improbable. The Kings won it all. The Rangers had a rematch with the Devils in the Conference Finals. This time the Devils prevailed before losing to the Kings in the finals.
The 2012 teams were not one-year wonders. They were built to win it all. The 2013 Kings came up short to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Conference Finals. Then in 2014 they won the rematch in a seven game thriller that will rank as one of the great hockey series of all time. They trailed three times in game seven before winning in overtime. The 2013 Rangers lost a physical playoff series but bounced back in 2014. The Kings won all three of their series in seven games each, an exhausting but courageous display. The Rangers needed seven games for their first two match ups before winning the Conference Finals in six games. The closer was a 1-0 thriller over a talented Montreal Canadiens squad.
These teams both have heart, character and guts. The Kings trailed in their opening series three games to none before winning four straight. They won all three game sevens on the road. The Rangers trailed three games to one this year before winning three straight, two of them on the road. They teams win, and they win the right way. There is no trash talking. There is plenty of mutual respect.
The Rangers were the feel-good story of 1994. The Kings were in 2012. In 2014, the Rangers were down and almost out before Martin St. Louis’s mother died. The entire team rallied around him. The Blueshirts grieved together and fought together all the way to the finals.
Sadness and likability on both sides just does not lend itself to hatred. The greatest sports rivalries have bitter hatred. When the puck is dropped, the politeness will go out the window. Guys hitting each other tends to do that.
Yet despite this being New York against Los Angeles, it is really just a bunch of good guys worthy of being conference champions. Rangers goalie Henriq Lundquist is phenomenal, and Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is also fantastic. They lead teams that are as likable as they are effective.
So even without the hatred, this will be a great series enjoyed from coast to coast and sea to shining sea.
Oh, and about the people living those cities…New Yorkers will stop and help you with directions. When the chips are down, they will rally around you and treat you as one of their own. Angelenos will treat you with kindness and welcome you into their beach parties.
Let the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup begin.
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