Stanley Cup fever in New York and L.A.: 3,000 miles and worlds apart

The L.A. Kings lead 1-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals, but at the Flying Puck in New York, a sports haunt for those who bleed Ranger blue, a passion gap is evident. One fan is adamant: 'I’m tellin’ ya, Rangers in six!'

Bruce Bennett/AP/Pool
New York Rangers' Benoit Pouliot, right, scores a first period goal against Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick during Game One of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Staples Center Wedensday in Los Angeles.

The Flying Puck is one of those sports haunts in Manhattan that draws a particular breed of New York fans: hockey partisans who bleed Ranger blue.

Just take a look at the centerpiece of its traditional Irish-pub-inspired wall: a large, sepia-toned photograph featuring two split-screen images of hall-of-famer Mark Messier, the Ranger’s famously-pugnacious captain of 20 years ago. On the left half there’s a full-frame photo of his grimacing face, looking down, exhausted, with the picture’s only burst of red lining his split-up nose.

But on the right, one of the most iconic single moments in New York sports history: Messier grasping the Ranger’s only Stanley Cup championship trophy in 73 years, featuring that wide-mouth cry of joy – a moment that, in the words of New Yorker Walt Whitman, is untamed, untranslatable, a “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

This year-round Blueshirt shrine at the Flying Puck, where 16 Rangers banners hang over 10 HD-screen TVs, is just a few ice rinks away from Madison Square Garden, “the world’s most famous arena,” where New York is now battling the Los Angeles Kings for another shot to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. 

“I’m going to tell you right now, with the Rangers? The energy now? Oh man, it’s just a party right now,” says Ray Mack, a postal worker from Brooklyn who works in the Times Square office. “And I don’t know – with the Rangers, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think they win it every year. I don’t know if it’s just because of this city, but come hockey season, everybody loves the Rangers.”

Even those who only follow hockey on occasion have joined the Rangers traditional lunch-pail workers and blue-collar fans to support the Broadway Blueshirts. But some 3,000 miles away, just outside the downtown Staples Center in Los Angeles – where the Kings beat the Rangers in overtime Wednesday – many in the city were going about their business without so much as a passing glance at the game.

Sid Vallegas, a 40-year-old project manager from nearby Anaheim, was snacking in front of Live Basil Piazza, just across the street from Staples Center. The café had a big-screen TV that he could peek at every now and then to see how the game was going.

“I’m interested enough to see who’s winning, I guess,” he says, quickly adding that basketball was his real sports passion – like most folks in LA. “I don’t really care that much about ice hockey.”

Across the street at Tom’s Urban, a “meet, eat, and drink” joint catering to the Center’s fans, workers sitting on the stoop gave a similar shrug to the game. The restaurant sports a “Go Kings,” banner, but server Carla Martin shook her head when asked if she would ever go to a hockey game. Then, she added as an afterthought, “Well, I might if someone gave me a free ticket. They cost $1,700 tonight, you know.”

Nonetheless, hockey does have its partisans in this region where nobody’s swimming pool ever freezes over. Take Ross French, for instance, who lives 50 miles east of LA, yet follows the Kings with passion.

“Hockey’s problem is that it is in a kind of vicious circle,” he says via e-mail. “There is a perception that people don’t care about it, so outlets like ESPN don’t talk much about it. And since ESPN doesn't talk much about it, people don’t see it on the news as much."

But at the Blarney Stone, another Irish haunt in the shadows of the Garden in Manhattan, people talk about hockey a lot – especially now. Owen Roth, an Amtrak worker from Hackensack, N.J., is sitting with a woman named Karen, arguing about Wednesday’s loss to the Kings.

“We went up 2 nuthin,’ ” Mr. Roth is saying, giving props to the energy at the Staples Center crowd. “Then they [the Kings] scowuhd a goal – the crowd got into it,” he says, dropping his “r’s” like many New Yowukuhs do. “They scowuhd anothuh goal, and before yuh know it – now they’uh behind a game. The crowd can motivate you to skate fastuh, play hahduh, and hit hahduh. It’s an advantage.”

Karen’s shaking her head, and hits the bar. “I disuhgree, I disuhgree, I disughree. The road team always wins in hockey! Look at the Game 7s this yeeuh!”

She has a point, too. While home teams have historically won 59 percent of the 155 Game 7s in Stanley Cup playoffs, visiting teams are 17-11 in Game 7’s since 2004, including 5 out of 6 this year. The Kings, in fact, have won three Game 7s on the road this year – an NHL record – even though a Game 7 in this year’s Finals would, if necessary, be played in LA.

Even so, Karen, who did not want to give her last name, keeps saying, “I’m tellin’ ya, Rangers in six! Rangers in six!” Game Six would be played in the Garden, with a possible shot at another ecstatic, barbaric yawp.

As Roth acknowledged, though, there’s some passion in Kings fans, even if it doesn't run as deep. Howard Ruben, a featured columnist for the Bleacher Report and a longtime Kings fan, explains that the visceral, childhood connection with hockey is something sorely lacking in the native Californian sun-drenched experience.  

Little Angelenos do not grow up struggling into snowsuits and heading out for a casual game of backyard hockey, nor do they play in school, Mr. Ruben says. He’s lived in southern California for decades, but he grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where, he says, “neighbors used to flood their backyards in the wintertime so they would freeze, and the kids could all go play hockey when we wanted.”

But that doesn't mean nobody cares, he says, and for a brief, glorious moment, the northern sport had its moment in the southern California sun. The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, and fans lined city streets to watch the Stanley Cup parade go by.

And hockey’s gained some momentum since the 1990s, Ruben says, ever since the sport's all-time greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, played for the Kings. “And things have gotten better since then,” he says, noting that there are some youth hockey leagues appearing in the area.

But they’re not likely to wax poetic about the sport of sticks and pucks on ice, where, in New York and throughout the Northeast, it can be a family tradition among its many working-class fans.

“The advantage that the Rangers have with fans? Theyuh one of the originals,” says Roth in New York, a reference to the NHL’s “original six” hockey franchises. “So the Rangers – it’s passed on from genuhration to genuhration. If your father rooted for the Rangers, you’re mowha likely to root for the Rangers. And his kids are mowha likely to root for the Rangers. So they had a long time – and they got the built-in fan base. And we’uh pretty passionate he’uh, I think.”

[Editor's note: The original version included an inaccuracy about Wayne Gretzky's career with the Kings.]

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