Usually in sports, stories of underdog teams rising to their potential make us all warm and fuzzy inside. Then there's the New Jersey Devils of the NHL. The NHL owes a number of things to the Devils, and none of them are good.
It was 1974 when the NHL finally decided it was done adding new teams for the time being. It placed two more teams into the league that year: The Washington Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts. Kansas City might seem an unusual location for a hockey team, but it did have a long history of minor league hockey teams, and since it wasn't along the Canadian border, well, that's really the only thing the NHL could ask from a potential market south of Chicago. Now, Kansas City is really two cities, one right across the river from the other: The one in Kansas and its more celebrated, upscale brother in Missouri. The NHL team was originally supposed to be called the Mohawks out of deference to both states; it combined the postal abbreviation of Missouri - MO - with the old Kansas nickname Jayhawkers, basically guerilla fighters from The Civil War who attacked the pro-slavery groups. It's also a term used to define Kansas native, and its shorter cousin, Jayhawk, is the mascot of the University of Kansas. However, the Chicago Black Hawks bitched that Mohawk and Black Hawk were too similar, and a name-the-team contest gave the Scouts the identity of one of Kansas City's iconic statues.
The Kansas City Scouts lasted two seasons. It says something about how good they were that their inaugural campaign, a 15-54-11 disaster which yielded all of 41 points, was the better of them. The next year, they started better, and were even in the run for a playoff spot after a 3-1 win over the California Golden Seals in late December. But most of the season went down the tubes as the Scouts then went 0-14-2 from December 30 to February 4 before beating the even worse Capitals in their next game. They finished on a reverse glittering run of 0-21-6. In their last 44 games, the Scouts went 1-35-8 for a final record of 12-56-12 for 36 points. With 32 teams in the NHL and WHA combined, talent stretched thin. The Scouts also had to deal with inflated player costs, poorer ownership, and a nasty economic swing in the midwest. No one bought tickets and, despite a season ticket drive for money, the 37 owners of the Scouts were killed by debt and forced to sell.
Off to Denver they went! The Kansas City Scouts became the Colorado Rockies. While the depths of the Scouts were never reached in Colorado, the team continued to play only marginal hockey, and in six years in Denver, they made the playoffs all of once. And this is the NHL, where playoff positioning is determined by filling out the proper circle on a form that tells you the answer. So even that wasn't impressive - the Rockies finished with the sixth-worst record in the league in their lone playoff year. They did field a couple of outstanding players who were worth watching, like Barry Beck, who set a record for goals by a rookie defenseman, and Toronto Maple Leafs mainstay Lanny McDonald did three seasons in Colorado before going on to his defining career gig with the Calgary Flames. They also put Don Cherry on the coach's bench for a spell, and Don Cherry is always flamboyant and entertaining. Which meant the front office hated his guts and he was dismissed after one season. The Rockies were actually able to hire and fire seven coaches in four years. No wonder they were so bad. That has to be some kind of record.
In 1982, New Jersey shipping tycoon bought the Rockies and moved them to New Jersey. Since they would somehow be defined as a New York City team despite playing in a whole other state, the new team was forced to compensate the New York Islanders and New York Rangers. And wait, see, they're not in New York, they're in New Jersey, which meant they were ALSO invading the turf of the Philadelphia Flyers, who got to take the new team's money too! To select the name, people voted in a contest to name the team after the legend of the Jersey Devil, a creature which originated in American Indian folklore and said to live in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey.
"Well, it's time they got their act together, folks. They're ruining the whole league. They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on ice." Believe it or not, that comment didn't come from a random message board devoted to today's Buffalo Sabres. That's a direct quote from Wayne Gretzky during the 1984 season after his Edmonton Oilers blew out the Devils 13-4. After a nasty sound bite like that, teams and fans naturally wanted to get even, but what could they do? They were positively shitty and surrounded by three of the NHL's glamor teams whom any players would likely sign with instead if given the option. So in response, Devils fans began showing up wearing Mickey Mouse gear whenever the Oilers visited. After all, this was a team which, throughout its earliest years in New Jersey, failed to win 20 games on more than one occasion. What else could they do?
Well, ownership DID do something, since the owners were actually stable and not worried about their next move for the first time since, well, ever. They assembled a group of competent players like Kirk Muller and Pat Verbeek and Chico Resch. Starting in the 1984 season, the Devils began a slow and steady improvement on the ice. In 1987, they hired Providence College coach and athletic director Lou Lamoriello to be the team president. He was an unknown outside college hockey, but he was the right guy for the job. You can tell that by his sheer longevity - he's still the president of the Devils.
In 1988, the Devils compiled their first winning record. On the last day of the season, they were tied with their hated archrivals, the Rangers, for the last playoff spot. New York had beat the Quebec Nordiques, and after that, the Devils played against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Devils trailed through the third period 3-2, but John MacLean tied the game, then added the winning goal in overtime. Both the Rangers and Devils finished with the same number of points with 82, but the Devils had one more win, and got the playoff spot. In the playoffs, the Devils took a level in badass! They ran through to the Wales Conference Finals, where they dragged a series against the Boston Bruins out to seven games, but lost. During the series, Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld verbally abused referee Don Koharski, who fell down during the exchange and claimed Schoenfeld pushed him. Schoenfeld was ejected from the game and ordered by the league to sit out the next game. The Devils demanded a hearing, the league refused, and so the Devils screamed something about how their rights had been violated before taking it to the New Jersey Superior Court. The Court actually ruled in favor of the Devils because the NHL's "investigation" consisted of two phone calls, one to the coach and one to the ref, and no video review. In protest, the other officials refused to work the game! After an hourlong delay, a trio of off-ice officials were found to do the work…. Which they did while wearing their scrimmage sweaters. While all this was going on, by the way, league president John Ziegler was away on personal business. Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, chairman of the league's board of governors, was the one who finally had to give the order to play the damn game already!
The Devils started falling below .500 again the next year, but they haven't been missing the playoffs very much since then. By the 1994 season, the Devils had a classic lineup in place. It featured Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Claude Lemieux, and Martin Brodeur. They notched their first 100-point season, fought their way to the Eastern Conference Finals, and met the Rangers in a seven-game series for the ages. The Devils led the series 3-2 after dominating the fifth game. Before game six, Rangers Captain Mark Messier made a very famous guarantee before suiting back and netting a hat trick while leading his team to a raging comeback. In game seven, New Jersey's Valeri Zelepukin tied the game with 7.7 seconds left in regulation before the Rangers won in double overtime.
Before I continue, you have to understand something about hockey: There's not a sport or a league on this planet that attaches more useless, ludicrous importance to its on-floor markings than hockey: If the puck crosses the red line, blue line, and goal line, it's icing, and has to be returned to the end it came from for a face-off. If an attacking player crosses the blue line before the puck does, it's offside and there's a face-off! There used to be a violation calling for passes that went beyond two lines. Yeah, bullshit, right? Well, there are so many dumbass rules and violations regarding line placement that a team could potentially base its entire game plan on them! And for the 1995 season, it was the Devils who found a way to exploit them. They started implementing a strategy called the Neutral Zone Trap, a strategy which placed four players on the defending team into the neutral zone to act as sentries while the fifth stayed in the middle of the ice to cut off passing lanes and force the puck to the side, where it eventually gets dumped off into the attack zone. The Trap is known to reduce scoring, and the brutal physicality necessary to using it slows games way down and forces a lot of penalties. Sometimes that's essential to win difficult matchups, but when it's the primary driving force of hockey, it creates slow, boring games where the puck is pretty much just dumped and chased through 60 minutes. The New Jersey Devils relied on it as their way of life. They fucking SWORE by it. And unfortunately, the Neutral Zone Trap was also brutally effective. It allowed the Devils to win the Stanley Cup three times. That meant other teams started following suit - and the Devils ruined an entire sport.
In 1995, the Devils went to the Finals for the first time and handily swept the Detroit Red Wings. Other teams started playing the Trap in large part because it was so effective that poor teams teams were able to level the playing field against rich, star-laden teams. The Devils were routinely among the best teams in the NHL for the rest of the 90's. In 2000, they broke through again, returned to the Finals, and beat the Dallas Stars, something I'll give them a free pass on because their opponents were the Stars. In 2003, they did it again with a roster comprised of players like Jamie Langenbrunner, John Madden, Joe Nieuwendyk, Scott Gomez, Scott Stevens, and Martin Brodeur. They beat the Might Ducks of Anaheim in seven games to win the Cup again. Unfortunately, by now the Neutral Zone Trap was actually giving the league fits, and I don't mean that in just the sense that other teams hated playing against the Devils. It was also costing the NHL watchers. The few NHL games being shown on ESPN were dragging in rating so low that the network simply dumped the contract, leaving fans blacked out. New rules had to be implemented to obscure the Trap.
When hockey resumed after the 2005 lockout, the Devils still had enough star power to stay potent. They made waves. Martin Brodeur established himself as a possible equal to Patrick Roy in greatest goalie of all time discussions. The Devils also made acquisitions like Zach Parise, Brendan Shanahan, Brian Rolston, and in one controversial move, they signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $100 million contract in 2010. The NHL rejected that contract because it circumvented the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Kovalchuk became a free agent for two months, then the league accepted a contract for 15 years. The Devils didn't return to the Finals until 2012, though, where they lost in six games to the Los Angeles Kings.
Ken Daneyko, Scott Stevens, and Scott Niedermayer have all had their numbers pulled to the rafters in New Jersey. Other hockey legends with the Devils include Peter Stastny, Doug Gilmour, Adam Oates, and Joe Nieuwendyk. For the 1993 season, they actually had Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooks on their bench but, while Brooks was a potent college hockey coach, he proved to not be such a great hire for the NHL.
The Devils have intense rivalries with the New York Islanders and New York Rangers. Especially that second one - the Devils and Rangers have made trades with every team in the NHL except each other. These two teams have met in the playoffs a lot, and the Rangers hold the overall edge in playoff series while the Devils have won the Stanley Cup more often in the rivalry's most intense years. (The Rangers won it once, in 1994. The Devils took it three times.) The most important moments of the rivalry happened in the middle of the 90's. The Rangers had to plow through the Devils in order to win the Stanley Cup in 1994. During their series against each other, Rangers Captain Mark Messier guaranteed a victory and his team made good on it. For a few years, New Jersey dominated the rivalry while New York wasted their money, and the Rangers and Devils never played against each other in any of the playoff years when the Devils won the Cup. Since the post-lockout resurgence of the Rangers, the rivalry has gotten intense again, and last season, they played against each other in the Eastern Conference Finals, which New Jersey won.
Upon arriving in the NHL, the Devils were known mostly for being the Mickey Mouse team Wayne Gretzky referred to them as. Those days are now long gone. The Devils have three Stanley Cups to their name now, and they came within a stone's throw of it by winning the Conference Championships in 2001 and 2012 too. Now they're known for being hardasses. Even after the implementation of the New Rules that wiped out the Trap, the Devils have a very aggressive style of play that emphasizes forechecking and puck possession. In the 2008 season, they fielded a surprisingly high-scoring squad. They've always relied on tough defense.
Unfortunately, that gave them a bad name. The Neutral Zone Trap fucking ruined the NHL. The league is still dealing with the effects as teams struggle to find a style of defense that is as effective a replacement for it. It killed the league's TV contract and wiped out a lot of fans. To be fair, the Devils did manage to lead the Eastern Conference in goals scored twice and the NHL once during the Trap era, but that says more about other teams' usage of the Trap than about anything the Devils brought to the table offensively. The Devils also have an identity in the way they give the arrogant sports fans in New York City another team to vampire when their preferred teams are sucking up their leagues and New Yorkers absolutely NEED a bandwagon to shamelessly hop aboard. That business with Ilya Kovalchuk was a little fishy, too.
Are you a native to New Jersey? Then, and only then, should you have a claim to cheer for the New Jersey Devils. Hell, be proud of them - they're doing great these days. But between the shameless bandwagon-hopping of Isles, Rangers, and "hockey" fans in New York City, the Mickey Mouse comment, the Ilya Kovalchuk legalese, and especially that fucking Neutral Zone Trap, I don't see how these guys are even remotely likable. I'll give them their 2000 Stanley Cup, but only because they beat the Dallas Stars.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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