How Gretzky trade changed the hockey landscape in LA

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On the 23rd anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky sale trade, it’s only natural to take a look back at the trade’s importance on the league. Stephen Brunt wrote a good book about the entire deal in “Gretzky’s Tears” and Peter Pocklington was able to get his side of the story to the public in an even better effort: “I’d Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal.” Plenty has been made of what the trade meant for Sunbelt hockey, the Edmonton Oilers, and Canadian hockey as a whole. But what gets lost in the mix is the immeasurable impact Gretzky’s trade had on the local Southern California market. Outsiders understand that it was a big trade—but people don’t quite understand how it completely shifted sports landscape of the entire region.

The obvious, immediate impact was at the box office. From his first game of Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles, attendance at the Forum skyrocketed to levels that only Bruce McNall had dreamed of. Gretzky was the biggest name in a game that was still a regional sport in the United States. People may not have known about offsides, line-changes, or icing—but they knew about Wayne Gretzky. Instantly, he put the Kings on equal footing with Magic and the Lakers, Gibson and the Dodgers, USC football, UCLA basketball, and whoever the Raiders/Rams were trotting out onto the field. The team had a marquee name—more importantly, they had the only name in hockey that could transcend all sports and entertainment.

The old, recycled joke from comedian Alan Thicke captured the lack of interest in the pre-Gretzky era pretty well:

“What time does the Kings game start?”

“Depends, what time can you get there?”

Might not be the greatest joke from Kirk Cameron’s on-screen Dad, but it was painfully true. But everything changed when the Kings had their own superstar to grab the sports headlines away from the teams that dominated the LA sports landscape at the time: Lakers and Dodgers.

In the year before he arrived, the Kings averaged only 11,667 fans per game. In his first year, attendance shot up 27% to 14,667 fans per game. In the six consecutive playoff appearances for the Kings after Gretzky arrived, there wasn’t an empty seat for even a single game. The attendance peaked in 1991-92 when the Kings sold out every single game of their 40 game schedule. Not bad for a team that was used to playing to two-thirds capacity in the mid-1980s.

The Kings finished the 1987-88 season with a 30-42-8 record that was good for 18th in the 21 team NHL. In the year before Gretzky’s arrival, the Kings were 5th in the league in scoring—but dead last in defensive. Gretzky was expected to bring more than just a boatload of points; he was expected to bring wins.

Just important as the success in the stands, was the success on the ice. In the three seasons before Gretzky arrived in LA, the Kings had averaged 64 points per season. In the three seasons after he arrived, they averaged 89 points (including the second best record in franchise history in 1990-91). The Kings went from a near .500 team at home to one of the more difficult places to play. Did the fans show up because they won? Or did they win became more people showed up? Most likely it was a little bit of both.

Both the success at the box office and on the ice can still be seen at Staples Center today. There’s an entire generation of fans who are buying season tickets today because their parents jumped on the bandwagon when Gretzky came to town. John Hoven from the fantastic Kings blog Mayor’s Manor shows that the new fans have provided the gift that keeps on giving:

“In the years that followed the Kings found record attendance and Wayne Gretzky continued to re-write the NHL record book. However, his most significant impact on the hockey landscape is probably just now starting to be felt, some 20+ years later. Over the last few years, more and more California-born (and trained) players have been taken at the NHL Draft, including four last year and five this summer. Just another example of Gretzky giving back to the game of hockey, long after he’s retired.”

As time goes on and success continues to elude the Kings, many of the fans can still look back to the Gretzky era for their fondest memories. Gann Matsuda of Frozen Royalty is a perfect example:

“Looking back to before I started writing about the Kings and the NHL, I was a fan of The Great One and had been since his days with the Oilers. I remember back in those days that whenever the Kings and Oilers were on TV, I would make sure to get home and watch so I could marvel at his extraordinary skill—talent that we had not seen before. And after Gretzky was traded to the Kings, I rarely missed a game on television.

I was in attendance at the Great Western Forum on March 23, 1994, when Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s career NHL goal-scoring record against the Vancouver Canucks. I remember leaping to my feet, arms raised high over my head, cheering loudly along with everyone else. What a great memory that was.

Of course, there were many others, including the amazing Stanley Cup run in 1993 where he put the team on his back and almost willed the Kings to their first championship.”

But most obviously, the biggest change to the hockey landscape in Southern California was the addition of another team. Before Gretzky arrived, hockey fans were usually transplants that had two choices: the Kings or the team from their old hometown. Often times, they chose the latter. With the buzz Gretzky created in the media, the success the Kings achieved on the ice, and McNall’s willingness to open his market (for a one-time cash grab), the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were born. Fans in Orange County and the Inland Empire suddenly had a much closer option to satisfy their hockey fix. Ticket prices had exploded as demand increased for the Kings—there were a segment of season ticket holders who jumped at the chance to cut down on their tickets prices and drive time.

It’s been a divided region ever since. Hard to believe that a region that had a hard time supporting a single team for two decades was able to add a whole new franchise only four years after his arrival.

Islanders-Panthers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Islanders-Panthers stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Islanders and Panthers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Islanders-Panthers Game 4 stream at 12 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Panthers scored two goals in the third period and fought off a late push by the Islanders to avoid elimination and force a Game 4. Sergei Bobrovsky stepped up in net and made 20 saves just one day after allowing four goals on 34 shots in a 4-2 loss in Game 2.

Only seven times out of 57 has a team forced Game 5 after trailing 2-0 in a best-of-five. The only team of those seven to complete the comeback was the Islanders, who defeated the Capitals in a 1985 series.

The Panthers did have three separate three-plus game winning streaks this season (3, 3, 6). Florida has not won a playoff series since 1996 – the longest active drought in the NHL.

WHAT: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Friday, August 7, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Mike Tirico, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Islanders-Panthers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI leads series 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Penguins turn to Tristan Jarry in net for critical Game 4 vs. Canadiens

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Mike Sullivan wouldn’t say why, but he has decided to start Tristan Jarry in goal as the Penguins face elimination in Game 4 Friday vs. Montreal (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

The Penguins head coach, while stressing he has “complete trust and confidence in both of our guys,” has made the change with Pittsburgh down 2-1 in their best-of-five series. The Canadiens scored three times in the final 30 minutes of the game to move a win away from advancing.

Jarry’s last start came March 8, a 6-2 win over the Hurricanes. This will be his NHL postseason debut.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There were plenty of arguments that Jarry should have been the No. 1 from the beginning, but Sullivan went with experience. Murray, who backstopped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017, has struggled in the series. He’s posted an .899 even strength save percentage, putting him 16th among goalies with at least 60 minutes played at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.

It’s now Jarry’s turn to try and help the Penguins force a Game 5 on Saturday.

“He’s much more mature in his daily approach every day,” Sullivan said. “His work habits in practice have been terrific all year and consistent. I think those types of habits transfer to a game environment. Tristan deserves a lot of credit for how hard he’s worked on his game and where he’s at today. He’s a real good goalie.”

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

*if necessary

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Return to Play: Round-robin standings, scenarios

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While the 16 teams in the qualifying round play for the right to move on, the No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference are still up for grabs in the round-robin format of the NHL’s return to play.

The round-robin schedule resumes on Saturday with a pair of games (Lightning vs. Flyers and Golden Knights vs. Avalanche) and here we take a look at the impact those games can have on the standings.

Below is a look at the current round-robin standings and everything at stake on Saturday.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Current standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
:
Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5:
Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6:
Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8:
Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9:
Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD

• Winner of TB/PHI will be #1 seed; the loser will be #2
• Winner of BOS/WSH will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

• Carolina will face either Boston or Washington in First Round.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, TBD

• Winner of COL/VGK will be #1 seed; the loser will be #2
• Winner of STL/DAL will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule


Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Wraparound: Six NHL teams face elimination on Friday

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• The NHL Bubble Wrap has your nightly roundup of all the postseason action.

• Sheldon Keefe was not pleased with the way the Maple Leafs played Thursday night.

• The Jets joined the Rangers in heading home from their bubble after losing to Calgary in Game 4.

There are six games on the NHL slate Friday, and all of them could end with handshakes … or fist/elbow bumps in this age of coronavirus. Beginning at 12 p.m. ET with Islanders-Panthers and ending at 10:45 p.m. ET with Canucks-Wild, the First Round picture could become much clearer if some of these series conclude.

According to the NHL, only one day in league history has featured more than six elimination games. On April 13, 1985, the Rangers, Blues, Red Wings, and Kings all saw their seasons end, while the Sabres, Islanders, and Flames kept their playoff hopes alive in the best-of-five format. (The Islanders won the first of three straight to complete a comeback from 0-2 down in the series against Washington.)

One year later, the Nordiques, Bruins, Islanders, Blackhawks, Canucks, and Jets were part of a record-setting day. On April 12, 1986 those six teams were eliminated, the highest number of series to end in a single day in NHL history.

Today, two series that would have a quick turnaround for a Game 5 are Canadiens-Penguins and Blackhawks-Oilers, who would finish out their matchups on Saturday should the Penguins and Oilers win. The other four series would finish up Sunday if the Panthers, Predators, Maple Leafs, and Wild win.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Game 4: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (NYI lead 2-1): The Panthers scored two goals in the third period and fought off a late push by the Islanders to avoid elimination and force a Game 4. After receiving just four power plays through the first two games of the series, the Panthers earned five in Game 3. Florida capitalized on their opportunities by converting twice with the man- advantage (2/5). The Panthers were successful on the PK as well, killing off all three of the Islanders power plays. Florida has not won a playoff series since 1996 – the longest active drought in the NHL.

Game 4: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (ARZ leads 2-1): Will we see Pekka Rinne with the Predators’ season on the line? Perhaps. “It’s going to be tough decision,” said John Hynes. “The good part is you can’t go wrong with either guy. Both of them give us a chance to win. … It’s not a decision you take lightly.” Darcy Kuemper, meanwhile, has been solid in net for Arizona, posting a .923 even strength save percentage through three games.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Game 4: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (MTL leads 2-1): Jeff Petry scored from a sharp angle by banking it off Matt Murray’s helmet early in the third period, which proved to be the game-winner once again in this series for the Habs. The Penguins has now lost eight of their last nine playoff games dating back to the 2018 Second Round.

Game 4: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (CHI leads 2-1): Trailing 3-2 with under six minutes to go in regulation, the Blackhawks tied the game on rookie Matthew Highmore’s goal and then captain Jonathan Toews scored his second goal of the game with 1:16 remaining in the third period which gave Chicago the comeback win. Mikko Koskinen got the nod in Game 3 for the second straight outing, letting in four goals on 25 shots. Game 2 was Koskinen’s first career postseason start after his relief effort of Mike Smith in Game 1 was Koskinen’s playoff debut. Dave Tippett has not announced who will start Game 4.

Game 4: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (CBJ leads 2-1): Pierre-Luc Dubois completed Columbus’ comeback with an overtime goal to finish off his hat trick. The win pushed the Blue Jackets to the verge of a second straight postseason with a series victory. Prior to the 2019 playoffs, the franchise had not won a series.

Game 4: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (VAN leads 2-1): Vancouver could end its playoff series win drought with one more victory over Minnesota. Having not closed out a series since 2011, the Canucks shutout the Wild 3-0 on Thursday to inch closer to the First Round.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

SATURDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Round-robin: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD – NBCSN
Round-robin: Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD – NBCSN
Game 5: Canadiens vs. Penguins, TBD* – NBCSN
Game 5: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, TBD* – NBCSN
*if necessary

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

WEST
Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

PHT’s 2020 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Eastern Conference top seed round-robin preview
Penguins vs. Canadiens
Islanders vs. Panthers
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Western Conference top seed round-robin preview
Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Predators vs. Coyotes
Wild vs. Canucks