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East Rutherford, N.J.—The funeral cortege of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, hockey’s Babe Ruth, traveled a few miles through the streets of Montreal last week, and tens of thousands lined the route to cheer with dignity the life of a man whose unmatched desire on ice brought honor to his people, his province, his country, and his sport.
A day later, you could travel a few miles through the street connecting the New Jersey towns of Little Ferry, Carlstadt, Moonachie, South Hackensack, and East Rutherford and never know that two teams were playing at the road’s southern end for the Stanley Cup. Route 120 is thickly lined with suburban homes, apartments, gas stations, restaurants, storefronts, municipal buildings, offices, and schools, but only one house, about a mile from the Meadowlands Arena, displayed a red, white, and black Devils flag.
Only the delusional believe hockey means in these parts what it does in Montreal, where even the Expos will wear Richard’s number 9 in tribute. Still, when teams from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Denver, Miami, and Dallas have played for the Cup in recent years, their local real estate has been festooned in team colors and signs of support. The Devils prompt none of that. One fears that the torch of Rocket Richard’s legendary passion, which ignited his eight Stanley Cup titles, inspired many others, and illuminated the NHL’s path of post-WWII growth, has fallen into the reeds alongside the New Jersey Turnpike and been doused in the swamp.
This is not to denigrate what the Devils have accomplished on the ice. They may well win the Stanley Cup this week, surviving a bungee ride of good, then bad, then good performances as they struggle toward the finish line.
Looking like roadkill to many when steamrolled into a three-games-to-one hole against Philadelphia in the third round, the Devils were tongue-lashed by coach Larry Robinson into refocusing on their simple brand of winning hockey. “I felt that our team was much better than they were showing,” Robinson said of his now famous tirade. “And I didn’t want it to turn into something where we were thinking about it after it was too far to come back and say, ‘Well, we should have done this and we should have done that.’ ”
For Robinson’s team, “this” and “that” means clog the front of the net, disrupt the passing lanes, deny the opponent second shots, move the puck smartly out of their zone, shoot it deep into the opponent’s, win the races for loose pucks and the battles along the boards, play their positions, force breakdowns in coverage, don’t take foolish penalties, and, above all, listen to the coach. Revived, the Devs cruised into the Finals against Dallas with three straight methodical wins.
One reason the Devils don’t blip the public’s radar is that their method causes a certain madness. Yes, they’ve developed a world-class first line with Jason Arnott, Patrick Elias, and Petr Sykora, a unique threesome who can be breathtaking both on the rush and when cycling the puck. They have bruising Scott Stevens, hockey’s purest bodychecker, whose hit on Eric Lindros probably propelled the Flyers’ franchise player into his next career. And they have Martin Broduer, who, though a bit shaky this spring, is probably still the game’s top goalie.
But make no mistake, Devils hockey can be boring hockey, a far cry from the roaring Richardian dramas that once earned the NHL its reputation as the world’s greatest spectator sport.
Boring hockey may win titles, but not everyone wants to witness it. During earlier playoff rounds, with chunks of seats unsold, battalions of Torontonians and Philadelphians invaded to cheer the enemy. Jerseyites have scooped up more tickets for the Finals (which start at $75 for the last row), but scattered empties are still evident. In this matchup of two defense-first teams, Game 2 so thrilled Toronto writer Dave Shoalts that he remarked, “Watching that game made you long to be home doing your taxes.”
“This is a new era, and hockey has changed considerably,” says Robinson, comparing today’s methodical game to that of his day, when he was one of hockey’s best-ever defensemen for the flashy Montreal dynasty that carried Richard’s torch in the ’70s. “Our obligation is to each other. . . . Our job is to win hockey games. In the end, I don’t care, they can call us whatever they want. If you are standing there with the Stanley Cup, you don’t care what kind of hockey you played, exciting or not.”
It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. Yet, it is light-years from the obligation champions once felt—to win and enthrall. Herbert Warren Wind, the esteemed New Yorker essayist, observed in 1954 that Maurice Richard “regards the veneration that has come his way as nothing less than a public trust that he must never let down.” It reminds us that once upon a time, there was a link between the player, the team, and its fans. Today, because of numerous unavoidable factors, that link is often severed. Perhaps that is one reason why over a hundred thousand turned out to view Richard’s body lying in state and why one lone Devils flag flies on Route 120.
If the Devils lack mass appeal, it might be because they lack an identity. Richard’s teams were the Flying Frenchmen. Bobby Orr led the Big Bad Bruins. Bobby Clarke’s Flyers were the Broad Street Bullies. In the ’70s, Rangers GM Emile Francis called his overpaid underachievers “fat cats,” an identity with resonance.
But what are the Devils?
“I don’t know. That’s a tough question,” says Devils assistant coach Bobby Carpenter, who played on the ’95 Cup champs. “We’re just a hardworking team that plays smart. I don’t know if there’s any specific name you can put on it.”
“Our identity, if anything, is nothing much, just consistency,” says veteran defenseman Ken Daneyko, the longest-serving Devil. “It’s about team here. It’s not about individual statistics. It’s not about having star guys all the time. It’s about winning consistently every year. That’s a good enough identity.”
Fair enough. But rarely has there been anything electric about the Devils, who, a year after 2 million rejoiced at the end of the Rangers’ 54-year Stanley Cup drought, hosted their own victory party with 20,000 people in the Meadowlands parking lot. That doesn’t seem to bother Daneyko, who admits, “Everyone knows we’re always in the shadows. The New York teams always get the headlines. But that’s kind of the way the Devils would like it.”
There have been opportunities to break from the shadows, mold an identity, inject some fun. A mid-’90s Seinfeld episode revolved around character David Puddy’s over-the-top screaming fanaticism for the Devils, painting his face black and red, scaring a priest to death. The Meadowlands’ video scoreboard ran clips from the show. An entire “Puddy” campaign might have been mounted, but few even knew that Patrick Warburton, who played Puddy, once dropped the ceremonial first puck at a Devils game.
And this year, until the Finals, the lights would dim prior to the team taking the ice as the p.a. system droned the ominous strains of A3’s “Woke Up This Morning.” On the video scoreboard, a shadowy figure in a long sedan passed through a toll booth, drove the Turnpike, and approached the Meadowlands Arena: a clear homage to The Sopranos. But instead of cementing a transcendent Jersey connection by revealing the man in the shadows to be Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello in the James Gandolfini role, the video concluded instead with a typical montage of game action. Another lost opportunity.
Win or lose the Stanley Cup, the Devils will change hands this summer from John McMullen to that strange new world of YankeesNets. George Steinbrenner and his partners are reportedly paying $175 million (and $15 million more if the Devs win the Cup), a $40 million premium for the hockey club, so they can build a $275 million arena in Newark and launch a regional sports cable network for their teams.
With all that cash invested, Steinbrenner and company might want to search the swamp for Maurice Richard’s torch.