When the Los Angeles Kings again hoisted the Stanley Cup last month, there was some grumbling within the hockey community. Who were these guys who had suddenly become the most successful franchise of the past half-decade? Do people in LA even like hockey? Sure, The Trade that brought Wayne Gretzky to the West Coast kicked off some degree of hockeymania in the 1990’s, but that’s a relative term. The truth is simple: of the many things with which LA is associated, hockey is not one of them – the blue collar culture of the sport just doesn’t mesh with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. So where on the continent is the sport most popular?
Chicago: Since they share a hometown with some of the most storied and successful teams in each of the Big Four leagues, you’d understand if the Blackhawks were somewhat overlooked. And yeah, lots of fans disappeared around the turn of the millennium when the team made the playoffs once in 10 years under legendarily awful owner Bill Wirtz, who seemed like he was intentionally driving fans away. But Chicago doesn’t seem to have shown exclusive dedication to any particular team in its history the way other cities have (see: Boston/NY), and with the Hawks’ recent resurgence following the takeover by Wirtz’s son and the drafting of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago has turned into a hockey city once more. Plus, cheering throughout the National Anthem at Hawks’ games is one of the coolest traditions in sports.
Minneapolis: In terms of the NHL, Minneapolis-St. Paul doesn’t boast much: they lost their original team, the North Stars, to Dallas after three decades of mediocrity, and their expansion team the Wild had largely been an afterthought until the last few years. But hockey itself is a religion in the Twin Cities, demonstrated by the fervor for high school and college hockey over the long winters. With the Wild building upon the backs of young superstars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, expect Minneapolis to take its place near the top of this list in the coming years.
Philadelphia: If you want blue collar, look no further than the City of Brotherly Love. The Flyers are one of the most successful expansion teams with the league’s second-best alltime winning percentage (57.8%, behind only Montreal), and fans love the physical style of play which gave rise to the nickname Broad Street Bullies. They come up short on trophies, however, not having won since their back-to-back championships in 1975-76. This combination of regular season success and playoff shortcomings has made Flyers fans some of the hungriest and most rabid in the league.
5-4. New York/Boston: These natural rivals are home to two of the most intensely passionate fan bases on the continent. Fans in both cities have remained loyal from their Original Six days through poor ownership and championship droughts to their current revivals. In contrast to Chicago, both are normally thought of as baseball towns, seemingly pushing the puckheads to the side, but a packed MSG and TD Garden are among the most ferocious venues in sports.
3. Toronto: The Canadian hub may have found more recent success from its forays into MLB and the NBA, but hockey always has and always will reign supreme. After co-dominating its first half-century of existence with hated rival Montreal, the Maple Leafs have fallen by the wayside, stuck in a 47-year championship drought. And yet the Leafs are still the league’s most valuable franchise, with its relentless fans continuing to cram the Air Canada Centre as loud as ever, knowing that this will be the year they turn things around. When the Leafs finally hoist the Cup once more, Canadian life may just grind to a halt for a weeklong celebration.
2. Detroit: When you think hockey in the United States, you think Detroit. Probably the NHL’s most popular franchise, possibly its most consistently excellent, home of both great entertainment and great puck, the Red Wings have truly earned their city’s “Hockeytown” moniker. If you combine so much success – 23 straight playoff berths and counting, with four Stanley Cup wins over that stretch – with such tradition (anyone up for some octopus throwing?), it’s impossible not to win the hearts of an entire city. Detroit easily takes the crown of Best Hockey City, if not for…
1. Montreal: Simply put, Montreal is hockey. The superlatives speak for themselves: Longest-running franchise (older than the NHL itself). Most successful team (they’ve won ONE QUARTER of all Stanley Cup championships). For crying out loud, the Canadiens spurred a culturally significant riot in 1955! And as much as I hate to admit it, there may not be a more electrifying sports atmosphere than a Bell Centre playoff crowd. This is high praise coming from a Bruins fan: Montreal, you guys know hockey.