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James Mirtle (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
James Mirtle (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

JAMES MIRTLE

Dream matchups help NHL cash in on this year’s conference finals Add to ...

The building rises like a giant, stunted column of glass above the street, surrounded by hundreds of fans in blue jerseys and a video screen affixed to a skyscraper that has a shot of defenceman Ryan McDonagh several storeys tall.

Inside, Madison Square Garden’s nearly billion-dollar renovation the past three years has transformed it into a modern sports palace, one frequented by uber-celebs such as Robert De Niro and Sting for playoff games against the Montreal Canadiens the past few days.

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For the NHL, it’s all a giant cash register, ringing up millions with every game played a short cab ride down Seventh Avenue from its head office.

A year and a half ago, New York was the scene of a far worse battleground for hockey, a heated and protracted lockout that shut down the league for the third time in 20 years.

It created animosity and apathy in a fan base long sick of hearing about the business side of the game and was a PR nightmare for a league that had experienced record growth for years going in.

What’s remarkable now, on the other side of the fight, is how strong the NHL remains – and how much stronger it’s been made in these playoffs.

Some of that’s simply good fortune. The league could have hardly hoped for a better final four from the perspective of revenue generation, with every conference finalist a marquee team in a massive hockey market – New York, Montreal, Chicago and Los Angeles – and capable of pushing hockey-related revenue to new heights.

Even before the matchups were set, the NHL was going to hit a record on that front. Based on the league projecting next year’s salary cap to fall in the $69-million (U.S.) range, revenues are up to at least the $3.6-billion range – a nearly 10-per-cent jump from the last full season back in 2011-12.

With teams such as the Habs and Rangers in play, however, that’s likely to keep creeping higher. Montreal is generating more than $3-million in gate revenue per home date – nearly double that of a small market – and New York and Chicago aren’t far behind.

With the Canadiens alone having seven home dates so far – and guaranteed an eighth on Tuesday – that’s a significant difference maker. Every extra $20-million the NHL pulls in pushes next year’s salary cap up roughly $400,000, giving the bean counters even more incentive to cheer for the last three series to all go seven games.

Unlike the NBA, where the major markets – other than Miami – are long gone, the NHL got everything it could have hoped for on the business side.

“I think it’s great,” Habs defenceman Mike Weaver said. “Big market teams, emotions high, fans are into it. I think they’re having another sellout at our building back in Montreal – so it’s pretty amazing.”

That may sound like yet another revenue stream – filling the otherwise empty Bell Centre for fans to watch on the big screen – but so far it’s been small potatoes.

The 20,000 who watched Game 4 in Montreal on Sunday all paid only $10 each, and the Habs will donate a large share of those proceeds to their children’s charity.

But those games have been a boost to revenues in other ways, including concession and merchandise sales, to the point that some local bars are pushing to have the games shut down.

The team itself said Sunday that they’re not going anywhere, with several more likely if the Habs go deeper into the postseason.

The NHL has been lucky beyond its matchups, too. Its first year under a new division-based playoff format had the desired effect of creating tense games in the first two rounds, leading into a conference finals where a war of words between the two coaches has dominated headlines in the East and terrific hockey has been the story in the West.

That’s been enough to move the needle substantially even in New York, putting the league front and centre here in a way it likely hasn’t been since the Rangers last made the finals 20 years ago.

The strange part is the NHL’s new post-lockout(s) landscape should be hurting the big markets. The Rangers were 19th in payroll this season – behind markets such as Columbus and Winnipeg – with no discernible advantage due to the cap, and yet they have surprisingly become one of the league’s better managed and successful teams.

Chicago and L.A., meanwhile, seem to have a stranglehold on their elite talents, with most of the young stars around the league all now choosing to lock in where they are.

That’s helped keep the big markets on top, the money flowing in and commissioner Gary Bettman looking like a genius.

It’s all rather hard to believe, given where we were 18 months ago.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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