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.

Maple Leafs’ Muzzin out for rest of series vs. Blue Jackets

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There’s some good news for Jake Muzzin.

The defenseman has left a local Toronto hotel after leaving Game 2 on a stretcher following a collision late in the third period. Muzzin was cross-checked by Columbus forward Pierre-Luc Dubois and sent off-balance, causing his head to collide with Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s knee.

According to the Maple Leafs, Muzzin will miss the rest of the series and remain in quarantine until he’s ready to return.

“No question, seeing one of your teammates go down, especially a guy like ‘Muzz,’ you know the type of warrior he is.” said Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. “I think what he brings to our team is unmeasurable, obviously very tough. All signs are very positive being around him, and nice to close it out for him. But certainly tough to see, especially just how much we love that guy.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

When Muzzin is ready to return, the Toronto Hub Medical Director will decide quarantine/testing protocols before he’s allowed to practice and play again.

“He does a big part for this team, penalty kill, even strength against the best players against the other team,” said Mitch Marner said. “He really does mean a lot to us. So being beside when he did go down and stayed down, obviously it’s a little worrisome. And when you see the stretcher come out, a lot of things run through your mind. We’re all on his side and all praying for him. We just want to make sure that when he does come back he’s 100 percent, and there’s a lot bigger things than hockey.”

The series is tied 1-1 with Game 3 Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 1-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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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.

Aye Captains: Crosby, McDavid provide Penguins, Oilers spark

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TORONTO (AP) — The C’s have it: Crosby and Connor, that is.

It didn’t take long for the two captains – Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid – to make their presence felt three days into the NHL’s expanded playoffs.

With each of their teams facing 1-0 deficits, and both to their respective conference’s 12th- and last-seeded opponents no less, Crosby and McDavid provided much-needed sparks to even their best-of-five preliminary round elimination series, which resume Wednesday.

First, it was Crosby giving the Penguins a lift by beating Carey Price on a partial break to open the scoring in a 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto on Monday night.

A few hours later in the league’s other playoff hub city, Edmonton, Alberta, McDavid put on an eye-popping display – even by his standards – with his first three-goal playoff performance in a 6-3 win over Chicago.

”I’ve seen it for years with Sidney Crosby. I mean, he dictates the work ethic and pace of the game. Last night Connor was the guy to do that for us,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said Tuesday.

”Connor’s not a big ‘Rah-rah’ guy, but he inspires players by how he plays,” he added. ”And last night, he certainly led the way for us, and the rest of our team followed suit.”

In Sid, the Penguins trust, veteran defenseman Kris Letang said.

”When Sid is leading your team, you know you’re in good hands,” Letang said. ”If it was not the case, right now we would be in trouble.”

The Penguins and the Oilers aren’t out of trouble just yet, given how only 15 of 83 NHL teams which lost Game 1 of a best-of-five series have gone on to advance.

Both teams are back in prime-time, with the Penguins facing Montreal (8 p.m. EDT, NBCSN), and Edmonton facing Chicago (10:30, NBCSN), while breathing just a little easier.

”He comes out and he’s flying like that the first couple of shifts, you want to follow right along,” Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said of McDavid. ”We know he can do that at any given moment. And for him to do that in a huge game like last night, it raises your energy level.”

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 Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Islanders and Panthers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Islanders-Panthers Game 3 stream at 12 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Florida opened the scoring, and led 2-1 midway through Game 2, but the Islanders scored three unanswered goals to put the Panthers on the verge of elimination.

“If there’s a team that’s able to do so, I think it’s us,” said Panthers forward Mike Hoffman on the Panthers’ chances of a series comeback.

After a difficult regular season, Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t been able to deliver a win for Florida this postseason. He struggled in the exhibition game, allowing five goals to Tampa, and has come out on the losing end in both games this series. In Games 1 and 2, the goals that really seemed to change the momentum (Anthony Beauvillier’s game-winning goal in Game 1, Ryan Pulock’s game-tying goal in Game 2) were both scored five-hole from distance.

The Isles have been stingy defensively in their first two postseasons under the direction of Barry Trotz. They’ve now played 10 playoff games with him as coach, and allowed just 22 goals.

WHAT: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Wednesday, August 5, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Mike Tirico, Keith Jones, 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 2-0)

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

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

The Wraparound: Panthers keeping faith facing elimination

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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.

James Reimer‘s goaltending and Sebastian Aho’s highlight-reel goal helped the Hurricanes complete the sweep of the Rangers.

• Here are the updated round-robin standings and scenarios as of Wednesday.

Facing elimination, Joel Quenneville isn’t learning towards making a change in goal for Game 3 (12 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream). “Very likely,” he said after Tuesdays’ loss to the Islanders about going back to Sergei Bobrovsky.

Bob was their big summer acquisition, a $10 million a season investment. Their season is on the line Wednesday and they’re going to ride with him. Chris Driedger played well in only 12 regular season appearances, but he’s inexperienced. Quenneville has never been one to have much confidence in throwing young players into the fire.

Beyond the goals allowed, the goals for haven’t been helping. Florida has just two even strength goals in two games. There’s also the discipline problem as the Panthers have handed New York 12 power plays, allowing three extra man goals.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Florida isn’t looking past Game 3, knowing there’s plenty of work to be done.

“This is the best time of my life,” said captain Aleksander Barkov. “You get to play playoff games. Our whole team is here. We want to win. We want to play our best game. Obviously, our last two games are not our best. We can do a lot better. We’re going to do a lot better in the next game.

“If I’m disappointed in being here? No. This is a great chance for us. I’ve seen so many teams coming back from 3-0, 2-0, 3-1. It’s not over until …”

“The fat lady sings,” chimed in teammate Keith Yandle.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Game 3: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (Series tied 1-1): A short memory is what Rick Tocchet is pounding home to his players. “We’ll move by this [loss to Nashville] in about two minutes,” he said after the Predators evened the series with a Game 2 win. Getting clean shots through on goal will be one of Arizona’s keys. They sent 26 Juuse Saros‘ way Tuesday, but Nashville blocked 21 shots.

Round-robin: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream: At the end of every round this postseason, teams will be re-seeded – so round robin standings are critical. If Boston loses, the Presidents’ Trophy winners would no longer have a shot at the first seed in the East. Tuukka Rask, who has been dealing with a fractured finger on his glove hand, is expected to start. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos did not take line rushes with the team on Tuesday and has been ruled out.

Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream: How do you top a buzzer beater? Colorado is going to try. As they look to try and claim the West’s top seed, the Avs take on a Dallas team eager to forget about Monday’s third-period collapse to Vegas. Jared Bednar has no named starting goalie, but Pavel Francouz is expected to play.

Game 3: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (Series tied 1-1): Sidney Crosby has two goals in this series, scoring in each of the first two games. With his goal in Game 2, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th all-time with 68 playoff goals. The only active player with more postseason goals is Crosby’s teammate, Patrick Marleau. The goal also gave Crosby 188 career playoff points, tying Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth-most in history.

Game 3: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (Series tied 1-1): Many expected this to be a high-scoring series, and it hasn’t disappointed. Nineteen goals have been scored through two games, with the winning team scoring six goals in each game. The big names on both teams have impressed, including Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who both have six points after consecutive three-point performances. Patrick Kane has three points in the series (1G-2A).

THURSDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Game 3: Wild vs. Canucks, 2:30 p.m. ET – live look-in NBCSN
Round-robin: Flyers vs. Capitals, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Round-robin: Blues vs. Golden Knights, 6:30 p.m. ET – live look-in NBCSN
Game 3: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Jets vs. Flames, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN

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

EAST
Lightning – 2 pts. (.657)
Flyers – 2 pts. (.645)
Capitals – 1 pts. (.652)
Bruins – 0 pts. (.714)

WEST
Avalanche – 2 pts. (.657)
Golden Knights – 2 pts. (.606)
Blues – 0 pts (.662)
Stars – 0 pts. (.594)

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

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