Thirty years ago, college basketball pitted Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson against one another in the 1979 NCAA men's college basketball championship game -- a transcendent individual sports rivalry that carried over into the NBA and sparked a surge in league's popularity.
Now, it's hockey's turn, or so the NHL hopes.
The league and its national television broadcasters are giddy over a second-round Stanley Cup playoff series involving the league's crossover stars - Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who will meet in the postseason for the first time.
"It's one of those special moments," NBC coordinating producer Sam Flood said of this Round 2 Superstar Summit, which begins Saturday at Washington's Verizon Center.
|This second-round Stanley Cup playoff series between the Penguins and Capitals will mark only the fourth time since 1976 that two reigning MVPs will square off in the postseason:|
|Year||Players(MVP Year)||Playoff round|
|1976||Bobby Clarke (Flyers, 1975), Phil Esposito (Bruins, 1974)||Cup semifinal|
|1991||Mark Messier (Oilers, 1990), Wayne Gretzky (Kings, 1989)||Smythe final|
|1997||Mario Lemieux (Penguins, 1996), Eric Lindros (Flyers, 1995)||East quarterfinal|
|2009||Alex Ovechkin (Capitals, 2008), Sidney Crosby (Penguins, 2007)||East semifinal|
|Source: NHL Guide and Record Book|
"These are iconic players with global popularity, people are aware of their names; they transcend their markets and the average fan," NHL vice president of marketing retail, licensing and marketing Brian Jennings said. "It's a great opportunity for our sport."
Also, it is fairly historic for the modern era.
Since 1979, when ESPN launched as the first sports-only network, only three NHL playoff series have involved competing league MVPs. The last was a 1997 first-round pairing of the Penguins (Mario Lemieux, 1996) and Philadelphia Flyers (Eric Lindros, 1995).
Crosby won his MVP in 2007. Ovechkin claimed the honor last season and is a finalist again. They've been talked about as the NHL's future since each debuted in 2005.
"We base buzz on viewer feedback, and Crosby and Ovechkin are the players that come up when we talk to people about the NHL," ESPN studio producer Mark Gross said. "Off the top of my head, I don't remember any hockey players that resonate as well as these two guys."
Not even Lemieux and all-time NHL scoring leader Wayne Gretzky - "probably the two greatest players in our game's history, but who never met in the playoffs," Jennings said.
The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry shares a few similarities with Lemieux-Gretzky: begrudging respect but no love lost, and identifiable impact beyond man-made ice surfaces in Pittsburgh and Washington.
Capitals media relations employees said they "were still sifting through" credential requests for Games 1 and 2 last night, describing the number as "lots and lots" more than a usual second-round series.
Jennings said Crosby and Ovechkin finished among the top five for individual jersey sales for a third straight year. The Penguins, once again, ranked in the top three in overall merchandise, and the Capitals cracked the top 10 this season.
National television audiences have flocked to Crosby for awhile. Ratings for Penguins games on cable network VERSUS are "routinely near our best," according to executive vice president of programming Marc Fein.
"That's measurable, and the Capitals' popularity is now measurable in comparison," Fein said. "But there is something immeasurable about these two teams and those two players.
"Like Tiger Woods with golf, people want to see Sidney and Alex. They know them, and even the casual sports fan knows that these are two different people, two completely different personalities - and the feedback we get on both players is that people like that."
VERSUS will air at least Games 2 and 3 of the series, and Fein promised a heavy focus dosage on Crosby and Ovechkin, specifically their trademark personality traits - Ovechkin's over-the-top enthusiasm, Crosby's mild-mannered intensity.
NBC's Flood said his network's Game 1 coverage will devote an isolation camera and microphone to both players, and in-game statistical updates to track their performance beyond goals and points.
"What you don't want to do is get in the way of the story; you want to take the story to a whole new place," Flood said.
"At the same time, these two players are the biggest stars in their sport by a big margin, and they have a history. Plus, there is a lot of debate among fans as to not only which one is the better player but also which one will carry this sport for the next decade.
"This is going to be an intense series, and it could have far-reaching impact."
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