Friday, May 18, 2012

The Greatest Stanley Cup Final That Never Happened

It has certainly been a while since I last posted an article but the void in my life that shows up every NFL offseason has left me uninspired. The NFL Draft is covered to death, the early months of a baseball season are as interesting as a conversation about the difference between Russian Chess and Romanian Chess, and the NBA is well, the NBA. However, in the wake of a possible and likely New York-LA Stanley Cup Final I feel the need to reminisce about the greatest Stanley Cup Final and possible Sports Championship that never happened.

Long before there were undesirables such as the Fox puck, Gary Bettman or The Minnesota Wild uniforms, in the early 90’s hockey was going through a renaissance in the United States, mainly due to two men who shared the job as the unofficial Canadian ambassador to the United States. Their names were Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and their respective embassies held court in the nation’s two largest cities. By the time their tenure with the Oilers had ended, Gretzky was unquestionably the greatest player in the game and Messier was widely respected as the game’s greatest leader. (Gretzky has since invented a level of superstardom that only Michael Jordan can understand and Messier retired as indisputably the greatest leader in the history of team sports.) Their jobs in their new country of residence was simple..sell the game! The strategy to do so was also simple (conceptually)…win a championship! A decade after a young Magic and Bird were mandated to revive Basketball, a veteran Gretzky and Messier had the task at hand to do the same for hockey in a country where the game was not widely played or understood.  

 Both the Kings and Rangers had instant success under the guidance of their new leaders. LA, who had gone most of their entire existence without any significant success and the better part of the decade with none, had instantly become one of the top teams in the league, and the Rangers who had not won a cup in 50 years had immediately become the favorite.  More significantly, King’s games became the new Hollywood place to be seen competing with Sunset Strip hotspots and even their Great Western Forum roommate Lakers, while Ranger games became the hottest ticket in town by Wall Street power brokers, Madison Avenue socialites and East Village hipsters alike. The final piece of the puzzle, to bring hockey up to the same echelon as the other three major professional sports leagues in the US, was to have these two superstars square off on the game’s greatest stage; a battle of east Vs. west, leadership Vs. talent, Hollywood Vs. Broadway.

The Rangers won the President’s Trophy in 1991-92 with Messier taking home MVP honors but the team fell short in the playoffs to Super Mario’s squad. Two years later they energized the city with their first Cup since 1942. In 1992-93, The Rangers battled injuries and coaching instability most of the year, but the Great One took his squad to the Stanley Cup Finals, only to fall victim to the Montreal Canadiens and their record 24th Cup. Had these two teams managed to have everything peak at the same time and meet in the finals, not only would the hockey itself had been among the finest in history, but the Oiler’s brother against brother billing would have peaked interest throughout a country that craves a headline and the individual metropolises would have been energized by the battle for supremacy beyond the game itself. No team from New York has ever played a team from LA in the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup finals.  Between 1963 and 1981 the Yankees and Dodgers won two World Series a piece against one another while the Lakers and Knicks squared off in the NBA Finals 3 times in 4 years. Reigniting the New York-LA rivalry would have been the spark to put and keep hockey on the map south of 48.

If the Rangers and Kings both emerge to reach the finals this year, time will tell if this version of the two teams have enough cache to ignite a country’s interest in a sport from coast to coast and everything in between, but in all the talk about a Kobe –Lebron Final or Manning-Manning Super Bowl, The Messier-Gretzky Final is the greatest Championship Duel that was never played.


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