We have had New York – Los Angeles championship series in baseball (Dodgers – Yankees in 1963, 1977, 1978 and 1981) and basketball (1970 and 1972), but never in professional football (NFL, AFL, AAFC), nor in soccer (NASL or MLS). Granted, the Kings met the New Jersey Devils for the Stanley Cup in 2012, but keep in mind: Newark is 11 miles away from Manhattan.
While this is the first time the Kings and Rangers have met in a Stanley Cup Final, it is not their first playoff meeting. I was on the Kings’ broadcast team (joining Voice of the Kings Bob Miller) for those two series, one in 1979, the other in 1981.
The first time these two teams met in the playoffs was in something that is no longer part of the NHL – the best-of-three opening round “mini-series.” The National Hockey League had 17 teams that season (the Cleveland Barons had merged with the Minnesota North Stars the previous summer). Twelve teams made the playoffs.
The Kings finished their season on a Saturday night at the Forum in Inglewood. There was an airline strike on at the time, and all the teams were traveling commercially in those days.
After Saturday’s game, there was a chance that when the league finished play Sunday night, the Kings could end up playing the Rangers, the Islanders, Flyers or the Atlanta Flames. The Kings decided to gamble and fly to New York on Sunday, where they took in the Rangers – Islanders finale. When the Islanders prevailed to finish first overall, it put the 10th seed Kings into a pairing with the 5th seed Rangers, so no further travel was necessary.
It was also one of the first times the Rangers were able to use Madison Square Garden for the playoffs. For years, MSG would book the circus in April for guaranteed revenue. You can understand how that happened when I explain: they had a stretch from 1943 through 1966 when they missed the playoffs 18 times! The Rangers had endured many a “home” playoff game on the road.
So as the Kings entered the Garden on April 10th for Game One, the circus apparatus was visible, hanging from the ceiling. Faceoff time was 9 o’clock to allow for an earlier circus performance.
This was a deep Rangers’ team, the first coached by Fred Shero. They had six 20-goal scorers, led by Anders Hedberg, along with Phil Esposito, Pat Hickey, Ulf Nilsson, and Ron Duguay. Game One was no contest; John Davidson was outstanding in goal, allowing just one by Charlie Simmer. Esposito was the first star as the Rangers trounced the Kings, 7-1.
Game Two would be in Los Angeles, but because of the United Airlines strike, the teams were forced to fly to the West Coast on the same plane. Since I doubled as travel coordinator for the Kings, I had to go the NHL office in Manhattan with the Rangers’ John Halligan to sign a waiver. On the trip out to LAX, there was a “buffer zone” set up, so in one row sat Esposito, Rangers defenseman Carol Vadnais, Halligan and myself. The balance of the Rangers’ party was in front of us, the Kings behind. The series ended in a two-game sweep, with Esposito getting two goals, including the overtime series-ender. That Rangers team made the final, only to lose to Scotty Bowman’s Montreal Canadiens.
The second Kings-Rangers playoff meeting, in 1981, was another product of a bygone era, a best-of-five preliminary. There were 21 teams in the league after the summer 1979 absorption of 4 teams from the World Hockey Association. This was the era when everyone played everyone else four times each. The teams were seeded 1 through 16.
The Kings were 4th, with 99 points and the third-best offense in the league with 337 goals. The Rangers were 13th with 74 points. The Kings’ “Triple Crown” line of Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor started the All Star Game that season, and goaltender Mario Lessard was also an All Star.
Someone forgot to tell that to the Rangers. In Game One, Anders Hedberg scored one and set up another as the Rangers took a 3-1 victory.
Then, a very memorable Game Two: featuring an incredible benches-clearing brawl:
Rangers’ longtime broadcasters Jim Gordon (who also called the NFL Giants) and Bill “the Big Whistle” Chadwick, a former NHL referee called the action.
Look at some of those involved here – just one referee, Bryan Lewis, with linesmen Mark Pare and the legendary John D’Amico trying to make sense of it all. You will see Barry Beck, Ron Duguay and Tom Laidlaw of the Rangers, along with Rick Chartraw, Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor of the Kings. The Rangers ended with 142 penalty minutes that night, with the Rangers Ed “Boxcar” Hospodar getting 39 of those himself. The Kings took advantage of all the powerplay time in a 9-4 win.
That would prove to be the only playoff game the Kings have taken from the Rangers. After losing, 10-3 and 6-3 in Madison Square Garden, the Kings were done. That Ranger team would go on to beat the St. Louis Blues in six games, then were swept by their rival New York Islanders in the semifinal. That Islander team would go on to take its second of four consecutive Stanley Cups.
In a way, that 1981 Rangers’ team was similar to the 2012 Kings: a lower seed (Rangers 13th overall, the Kings were 8th in the West), both with great playoff success.
But this time around, there is no airline strike and the only circus in town is the Stanley Cup Final – enjoy it!