NEW YORK – The 6-foot-8 giant, clad in a New York Rangers hockey jersey atop several layers of sweaters, begins staring at the subway rider standing next to him on the packed car.
All of a sudden, the scowl on his bearded face is replaced by a surprised, knowing smile.
“That’s Mark Messier,” he whispers to his female companion, nudging her gently.
Indeed, the man quietly riding alongside him on the No. 4 train from Manhattan to the Bronx, clad in a ski jacket, gloves and wool cap above a shaved head, is the famed captain of the 1994 Rangers team that brought the Stanley Cup back to Broadway after a 54-year absence. Within minutes, Messier and the hulking fan are chatting it up about their love of all things hockey and their common destination on this night — Yankee Stadium and the fourth in a series of six National Hockey League games being played outdoors this season.
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A crowd of just more than 50,000 hard-core hockey fans will wind up attending this Super Bowl-week clash between the Rangers and crosstown New York Islanders, putting up with inconveniences like subfreezing temperatures and packed subway rides underneath rush-hour traffic. These are the types of fans the NHL hopes to find tucked away in future markets being explored this side of the Canadian border — the ones who can carry a franchise through the lean years once the novelty of having a new team starts to wear off.
And while the NHL has yet to announce expansion plans, Seattle remains at the forefront of the league’s thoughts as the time to add new franchises draws closer.
“When that happens, I think Seattle will certainly be an intriguing marketplace from the league’s perspective,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says. “I think we have a belief in the Pacific Northwest. It being good hockey territory. I think, obviously, the Canucks have done a fantastic job — in Vancouver, but also throughout British Columbia and the Pacific region — at driving interest in the sport.
“So, we think the possibility is there. It’s kind of more obvious than some of the other areas. It doesn’t mean we’ve done our due diligence. We’d need to satisfy ourselves on the marketplace, but just the objective factors around the marketplace suggest Seattle would be a good hockey market.”
Daly is making these comments in a private suite high atop Yankee Stadium in the moments before the outdoor game’s opening faceoff. Down below, at field level, the temperature has plummeted to 22 degrees and will reach low single digits with the wind chill before the night is done.
And yet, tens of thousands of fans, bundled up in Rangers and Islanders gear, continue to pour into the baseball venue, chanting and cheering as they wait for their longstanding rivalry to resume.
When Daly speaks of the league “satisfying ourselves’’ on Seattle as a viable market, he isn’t talking so much about the city’s per capita income, or cable television potential.
The NHL has spent years trying to clean up messes in Phoenix and Florida, where demand for hockey has been questionable at best. Even a market like Dallas, with plenty of money and cable TV potential, has gone through tough times at the NHL ticket window in recent years as the Stars franchise recovers from the financial collapse of former owner Tom Hicks.
Daly’s example of Vancouver as a shining hockey city also comes with its own sports warning label attached. NBA owners felt in the 1990s that Vancouver’s wealth made it an obvious expansion site for the ill-fated Grizzlies — ignoring that much of the wealth came from recent Asian immigrants who had not been raised with a basketball background.
As wealthy as the Seattle region is, hockey has never been the area’s No. 1 sport — just like hockey in Dallas always takes a back seat to football and baseball at the grass roots and professional level. Gauging the tangible interest level in Seattle has therefore been an ongoing, behind-the-scenes process for the league, starting with a read on whether the political will exists to broker a new arena deal without the advance guarantee of an NBA team as co-tenant.
Sources say there have been negotiations between the league and potential ownership groups in Seattle about the cost of expansion fees. To the point where the NHL and local officials could be prepared to make some type of announcement shortly after the Olympic Games in Sochi conclude — at a time the NHL hopes nationwide interest in its sport will be at a high point.
Daly makes no promises about when the NHL will announce expansion plans — despite varying levels of interest already expressed by Seattle, Quebec City, Kansas City and the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ont. But he does suggest the league feels it’s finally solidified some of its more unstable franchises as best it can in the short term.
“Our primary objective has been to stabilize the franchises we have where they are,’’ he says. “And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. So, as we move into the next phase, it would be a growth phase for the league. And expansion may come up on the agenda at the appropriate time.’’
For now, one of the bigger growth opportunities for the NHL has been cashing in on the TV and ticket gate popularity of the outdoor games. This Islanders-Rangers game is one of four in an NHL Stadium Series set that included a Rangers-Devils tilt at Yankee Stadium a few days earlier, a Kings-Ducks clash at Dodger Stadium before that and an upcoming March 1 contest at Soldier Field in Chicago between the Blackhawks and Penguins.
That’s on top of the separate NHL Winter Classic game at Michigan Stadium that saw 105,491 fans turn out New Year’s Day for a Red Wings-Maple Leafs showdown. There also will be the March 2 NHL Heritage Classic at retractable-roofed B.C. Place in Vancouver, where the Canucks will play host to the Ottawa Senators.
At the Islanders-Rangers game this night, players seem to have trouble moving the puck on the bumpy outdoor ice, situated in the shallow outfield area of the baseball field.
The game remains scoreless until late in the second period, when both teams trade goals just 40 seconds apart.
The crowd reaction to the first goal by the Islanders — designated as the “home” team — is a surprisingly loud, soccer-style eruption, followed by prolonged chanting and even verbal taunting of Rangers supporters once play resumes. But there’s little doubt who the majority of fans are supporting on this night as the tying goal causes two-thirds of the fans in the stadium to leap from their seats in a thundering roar.
The game will be settled early in the third period, when Daniel Carcillo pokes a rebound past Islanders netminder Evgeny Nabokov to give the Rangers an eventual 2-1 victory.
Before that goal, between periods, Eddie Natos, 20, and his friends, Joe Santos, 18, and Dick Wallace, 18, are rubbing their gloved hands and stomping their feet in the left-field bleachers trying to stay warm.
“Oh yeah, we’re freezing,’’ Natos says. “But it’s well worth it.’’
Thousands of fans had already left the stadium before the second intermission, unable to withstand the Arctic blasts of air. But Natos says he and his buddies “bleed Ranger blue” and happily shelled out $70 per ticket for a bleacher seat that offers only a distant, difficult-angled view of the rink.
“How many times can you say you got to do this?” he asks. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. If you’re a true hockey fan, you wouldn’t want to be anyplace else.’’
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @gbakermariners. Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners