Michael Farber did an excellent job of retelling the circumstances of that cover decision – how it wasn’t so much that SI managing editor Mark Mulvoy (who once covered hockey for the magazine and is close pals with Cliff Fletcher) wanted to praise the NHL as he wanted to “tweak” the NBA.
Sadly, whatever momentum the NHL gained from the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup victory, it lost the next fall by staging the first of three lockouts of the Gary Bettman era.
So now, 20 years later, in revisiting that cover story, SI concluded that the NHL and the NBA were both hot – though how anyone could compare the excitement of NHL finishes to the tedious way close NBA games close boggles this mind. Farber concluded that the NHL’s “hotness” reflected a series of off-ice factors – labour stability, the success of the six outdoor games, excellent television ratings – but mostly was a reflection of how entertaining the product has been in these playoffs.
Partly, that is a function of the NHL’s new financial order.
In the pre-salary cap era, when NHL payrolls ranged from $80-million at the top (think Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers) and $20-million at the bottom (think Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes), the financial imbalance between teams created an incentive for the disadvantaged teams to play hook-and-hold hockey to overcome the skill gap.
By forcing every team to spend within the prescribed range, it allowed – and in some cases even forced – small and mid-market teams to up the payroll ante. They may not always have spent the money wisely, but they spent it nevertheless.
Beyond implementing a new financial system, the decision to take out the red line quickened the pace of the game significantly since the mid-2000s. Suddenly, you had a far more compelling show – one that produced a 2014 playoff in which few leads were safe; and games could go long stretches without a whistle, teams attacking and then countering the way they once did in the mid-1980s, the peak of the offensive era. In the Stanley Cup final, No. 10 overall in the regular season standings, the Los Angeles Kings, defeated No. 12, the Rangers. That never happened before three years ago.
With labour peace assured for the foreseeable future and an influx of Rogers’ television money starting next season, you’d have to think, after frittering away an opportunity 20 years ago, the NHL isn’t going to make the same mistake twice – and will continue to stay “hot” into the years ahead.
THIS AND THAT: U.S. television ratings for Friday’s Cup-clinching game were excellent. Officially, NBC attracted six million viewers for the telecast, which translated into an overall 3.7 rating and made it the most-watched Game 5 since a triple overtime game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008. Most tellingly, it was up 82 per cent compared to the fifth game of the 2012 Stanley Cup final between the Kings and the New Jersey Devils, which was also a potential Cup-clinching game, but drew just 3.2 million viewers. The peak audience came in the half-hour window between midnight and 12:30 a.m. Eastern time, with the game in overtime. More than 8.5 million viewers were tuned in then ... Something to consider: The perception was that the L.A. Kings were the big losers back in the summer of 2011, when Brad Richards chose to sign with the New York Rangers instead of them. Richards signed a nine-year, $60-million contract that comes with a $6.67-million cap hit that the Rangers cannot afford going forward. He will get a compliance buyout this summer, so the Rangers can spread that money around to restricted free agents who’ll need a raise (Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider) and unrestricted free agents who provided great value this year: Dominic Moore, Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle. Unlike the Kings, who have most of their core players locked up on long-term multi-year contracts, the Rangers have just six players signed beyond 2015-16: Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, defencemen Ryan McDonough, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, and forwards Rick Nash and Richards. McDonough is on an exceptionally good contract – only one year into a six-year, $28.2-million deal. Lundqvist, at $8.5-million, is steep, even for a goalie with his pedigree. Nash, owed another $7.8-million per year for the next four years, is too pricey as well, but the Rangers only have one compliance buyout left, after spending the first on Wade Redden, and will have to use it on Richards ... Okay, let’s play Islanders general manager for a while because, hey, everybody else is doing it too right? They have huge amounts of salary-cap space, so anything is possible, as long as you’re prepared to cajole players into coming. Even the guys they’ve got signed – such as John Tavares – are on reasonable deals ($5.5-million through 2017-18 – tip of the cap to Garth Snow for that one). They also have two more years of Kyle Okposo at $2.8-million. So after Thomas Vanek played so badly in Montreal and Minnesota’s interest in him is waning, why wouldn’t the Islanders circle back to Vanek and make him an offer on July 1? Bet they could outbid anybody for his services – and they might not even have to offer that seven-year, $50-million deal that he turned down. The Islanders could sign Vanek, bid for Matt Moulson (who liked it there and might consider a return, because his options might be limited as well) and bring back them both back. Put it this way: Without a first-round pick in 2015, which they gave up to get Vanek in the first place, the Islanders better make the playoffs. As they are currently constituted, they have no chance. With Vanek and Moulson in the lineup, they might.