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Stanley Cup Final has top 2 TV markets, but not Chicago’s ratings

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist Sweden top Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar Sloveniwatches puck flip up during third

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, of Sweden, top, and Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, of Slovenia, the watches puck flip up in the during the third period in Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals, Wednesday, June 4, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) ORG XMIT: LAS125

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Updated: June 6, 2014 12:23AM

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Some 30 minutes before the puck dropped on the 2014 Stanley Cup Final between the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, Staples Center was almost entirely empty. A smattering of fans speckled the arena, but the neatly hung rally towels still covered the overwhelming majority of seats.

There was just no interest — in waiting in the cold arena, that is.

Chick Hearn Court and the bustling L.A. Live area were teeming with fans in heavy, black hockey sweaters, despite the sunny, 75-degree weather. They drank beer and shot pucks to test their speed. They drank beer and listened to a DJ blast house music. They drank beer and watched their kids play in bouncy castles. They drank beer and posed for photos with statues of Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West (the statues were wearing Kings sweaters, too). Then they drank more beer.

Billboards throughout Southern California declare “We Are All Kings.” Even during the conference finals, sports bars from Manhattan Beach to Malibu had Rangers-Canadiens games on all the big TVs, with the Dodgers games relegated to a small screen in the corner.

“I live in Manhattan Beach,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. “Everybody knows what’s going on with the Kings. It’s great because it’s a small-town attitude, a small-town atmosphere.”

Wayne Gretzky briefly made hockey cool in Southern California, but the current incarnation of the Kings — the 2012 Stanley Cup champions, 2013 Western Conference finalists, and 2014 Stanley Cup finalists — have made a real dent in the entertainment capital of the world.

But just a dent.

The NHL has what, on paper, at least, is a dream matchup — New York vs. Los Angeles, by far the two biggest markets in the United States. If this were Knicks-Lakers in the NBA Finals, or Yankees-Dodgers in the World Series, the attention and hype and ratings would be massive.

But you can be sure NHL and NBC executives were despondent when Alec Martinez’s shot hit Nick Leddy and got past Corey Crawford in Game 7 of the Western Conference final on Sunday night. Chicago might be No. 3 in population, but it’s an undisputed No. 1 in terms of American hockey markets. The Hawks draw big numbers across the country, and massive numbers in Chicago. Last year’s Game 1 between Chicago and Boston (combined populations of about 3.5 million) drew 6.36 million viewers nationwide. This year’s Game 1 between New York and L.A. (combined populations of about 12 million) drew 4.78 million.

Nothing illustrates the hockey renaissance in Chicago, and how far behind the rest of America’s big cities are, better than the TV ratings from Game 7. The overtime thriller drew a monster 22.7 rating in Chicago — that’s just shy of 800,000 viewers. In Los Angeles, it drew a 4.8 rating — or about 269,000 viewers. Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final drew a respectable 8.5 in New York, but the game itself drew half the 4.1 million viewers the Hawks-Kings clincher did.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tried to use some fuzzy math to make it seem like the NHL didn’t take a hit when the Hawks were eliminated.

“You know, don’t just look at the number, because a 22 rating with a population of 3 million is not that different than a 7 in a population of 9 million,” Bettman said.

Well, yes, it is. Because what really matters in terms of growing the sport is market penetration. And the fact is, only 4.8 percent of L.A. households watched Game 7. Only 7.1 percent watched Game 1 of the Final. In New York, a healthier 10.1 percent watched Game 1. Meanwhile, Buffalo — Buffalo! — drew an 8.5 rating, better than even the Kings’ hometown.

Bettman called the numbers pulled in cities such as Chicago, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Detroit “NFL-type numbers in their market.” In other words, they’re great, but they’re outliers. The tepid numbers in New York and Los Angeles illustrate just how far the NHL has to go to catch up to the rest of the so-called Big Four North American pro sports leagues.

This series could help. It’s a marquee matchup, with marketable stars such as Henrik Lundqvist and Drew Doughty. And even if it’s not Chicago-Boston, it’ll certainly draw more eyeballs than an Edmonton-Carolina or a Calgary-Tampa Bay Final. So the pressure’s on the Rangers and Kings to live up to the tremendous first three rounds of these playoffs, now that even casual fans are stumbling on to the games.

The Hawks won over Chicago with young, charismatic stars, exciting hockey and winning. The NHL can only hope the Kings and Rangers can do the same — for their massive hometowns, and for the country at large.

“Regardless of the sport, when you have two big cities playing each other, the atmosphere and the excitement, the city-wide pride to beat New York or beat L.A., it definitely magnifies the game of hockey,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “I think it’s great for the sport.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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