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Battle on the Hudson
The Devils, The Rangers, and the NHL's Greatest Series Ever
By Tim Sullivan
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Tim Sullivan
All rights reserved.
"Whenever we played the Rangers, you knew it beforehand. Everything was different. Preseason, regular season, playoffs, home, road, it didn't matter. Records? Throw them out. They were New York. We were New Jersey. They were established. We weren't. There was always a feeling that if we're going to do anything in this league, we're going to have to go through them. They were our biggest rival."
— BILL GUERIN, NEW JERSEY DEVILS (1991–98)
Dr. John McMullen brought the new kid to school on June 30, 1982.
He wasn't all that talented to begin with, he wasn't a hit with the others at recess right off the bat, and he always showed up in a strange red-and-green outfit.
Clearly, the New Jersey Devils arrived with a few strikes against them.
Indeed, it was tough for McMullen's dream on ice to find its way in the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area, much less in the National Hockey League. Formerly the Colorado Rockies, and the Kansas City Scouts before them, this was a vagabond franchise that McMullen purchased, one that had never truly tasted success. And even if it had, no one would have cared.
"We were a mess in the early years," said former Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko, who is now a television analyst for the franchise. "We had a lot of learning to do, a lot of growing. And most people around the National Hockey League thought we'd never reach our potential."
But McMullen, a New Jersey native who gained his fortune in the shipping business, always saw promise in moving the team to East Rutherford, a gritty commuter town of some 8,000 residents in Bergen County, overlooking the skyline of Manhattan. He saw opportunity in the Meadowlands Sports Complex, where the NFL's New York Giants and the NBA's New Jersey Nets had already taken up residence.
It didn't matter to him that the Meadowlands was built on swampland, smack dab in the middle of major highways, a hub for exhaust, waste, and traffic with very little fanfare around it. Let's face it — the place didn't scream out "hockey heaven" to anyone.
It didn't matter to him that the franchise had only produced one playoff season in eight years in Kansas City and Colorado.
And it definitely didn't matter to him that the New York Rangers, an Original Six franchise with as loyal a following as you'll find in the NHL, played just six miles away in the heart of the biggest city in the world.
But it probably should have.
"Say what you will, it was a tough hill to climb," said Gary Thorne, a former television play-by-play man for the Devils. "They were the redheaded stepchildren. No doubt about it. It was going to take a long time for them to gain the respect of the area, and certainly of the Rangers."
Indeed, the Rangers saw the Devils as nothing more than a gnat on their windshield in the 1980s. Wipe 'em off and move on down the New Jersey Turnpike. Heck, before the Devils were even allowed to migrate to New Jersey under McMullen's wing, the Rangers had to grant them permission through the NHL due to the proximity to New York.
They granted it, of course, without hesitation. What did they have to lose, right?
That was an attitude that carried from the locker room to the ice to the stands. While the team that called Madison Square Garden home hardly was a giant success among hockey circles, the Rangers and their fans certainly acted as if they were. You would think that sort of smugness and a cocksure attitude would be supported by layers of championships. But, no. While New York had three Stanley Cup titles to its name, the last one had come in 1940, the same year that Abbott & Costello debuted ... on radio.
But none of that mattered to Rangers fans. They were sure of themselves, year in and year out. In fact, in the early 1980s, the Rangers were a consistent playoff-caliber team, make no mistake. But the New York Islanders, tucked away in Uniondale, New York, were the league standard. The Isles were on their way to four straight Stanley Cup championships, a run unmatched today in any major professional sports league.
The Islanders were the kings of hockey. But not the kings of their own city.
That title belonged to the cult and the culture of the red, white, and blue: the Broadway Blueshirts could walk around town with their heads held high in good times and bad, no matter what. They gathered the headlines and the hugs, and there wasn't a thing anyone could do about it.
"Throughout the years, you had to give the Rangers fans credit," said Mike Francesa, the afternoon talk show host for WFAN-AM 660 in New York. "They suffered through all the years of heartbreak, but kept coming back. They loved that team and loved to tell people about it."
To be sure, in that suddenly crowded schoolyard that was New York–area hockey, the Islanders were the whiz kids, the Devils were the new kids, and the Rangers? Well, they were the cool kids.
"They were an annoyance at first, really. Nothing more," Joe Benigno said of the Devils, echoing the sentiment of legions of Rangers fans at the time. Benigno should know. He cultivated a talk show career at WFAN based on his loud, proud — and often panicked — view of his teams, which includes the Rangers. "All the Devils really provided, at first, was a place to see the Rangers a few more times."
Which was true, of course. Rangers home games were always a tough, pricey ticket — even in the city's lean times — so a few more contests on the other side of the Hudson River allowed Rangers fans the chance to infiltrate someone else's building and watch their pride and joy take the ice. It was truly a bizarre environment to witness, and the phenomenon continues to this day. Whenever the Rangers and Devils meet in New Jersey, there are always a large number of New York fans in the building.
From 1982 through 2007, the Devils called the Meadowlands home. They played in what was originally called the Brendan Byrne Arena, named after the New Jersey governor, which was eventually changed to Continental Airlines Arena.
Whatever the official name was, it was often given a bad name around the league because of its poor ice conditions, lack of atmosphere, and far too many empty seats among its capacity of 19,040.
But it was different when the Rangers came to town. You have to remember that the Rangers, in many ways, were a regional team, and still are. And you have to understand the perspective from which Rangers fans — some of whom may have actually lived in New Jersey — approached this new team, this new era of hockey.
There were some converts, clearly. The Devils' presence, for many New Jersey hockey fans, meant a more affordable, more convenient way of seeing the sport they loved. But for those born and bred into Rangers Nation, those who lived and died with their team, there was no turning back.
"Once they are your team, they are your team," Benigno said. "Doesn't matter the team, doesn't matter the sport. We talk about this all the time. When they are your team, it's for life. I don't know how it can be any other way. For the Rangers, that's a lot of people. Doesn't matter who came into the league after them."
A lot of fans flocked to the Byrne Arena in that first season, if only out of curiosity. And although the Devils, complete with their red-and-green uniforms that often drew comparisons to Christmas trees, defeated the Rangers 3–2 on October 8, 1982, in the first installment of this feud — a surprisingly shining moment for the inaugural club en route to a dismal 17–49–14 season — the New Yorkers were never deterred from coming back.
"It took some getting used to, but they did make us feel at home, yes," former Rangers forward Stephane Matteau said of the New York fans. "As a hockey player, you're raised to be prepared for home games, and then road games. They are different, of course. But when you played there, it was almost as if we were at home. Took some getting used to, but it was fun."
Not for the Devils ... most of the time.
"Yeah, it was frustrating," former Devils forward Corey Millen said. "We'd come back from a road trip, and maybe we had won three or four in a row, and we'd be feeling good about ourselves. And then we'd play the Rangers at home, and forget it. We'd look around, and we'd be like, Are you serious? This is a road game!"
But such was life for a team that had to start from scratch in a tough environment. In the 1980s, if you were a hockey fan in this market, you either supported the Islanders, who rewarded you with championship after championship, or the Rangers, who were solid most years, played under the bright lights of the big city, and had tradition to fall back on if all else failed.
Who had time for the Devils?
If a lack of respect in their own region wasn't bad enough, the Devils developed an odious reputation that began to filter out across the league.
The team posted the same win total in their second season as it had in its first: 17 ... to go along with 56 losses and seven ties. It was a dreadful 41-point season. They opened up on October 5, 1983, with a 6–2 loss to the Rangers at the Garden, followed it up two nights later with a 3–1 loss to the same team at the Byrne, and before you knew it, they were 2–20.
On November 28, two months into the season, they had four points.
One of those losses will live in infamy for many reasons. On November 19, 1983, while on a swing through Western Canada, the Devils ran into the fast, furious, high-wire act known as the Edmonton Oilers. Wayne Gretzky and the team that became the standard for success in the 1980s, along with the Islanders, showed no mercy against the road-weary Devils, pummeling them with a videogame-like score of 13–4.
After the game, in his locker room press briefing, Gretzky's hits kept on coming.
"Well, it's time they got their act together, folks," Gretzky said. "They're ruining the whole league. They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on ice."
In today's day and age, with social media, blogs, live Internet updates, and 24hour sports television and radio stations, his comments might have been even more colorful.
As it was, the point was made. Gretzky, who later apologized for his comments, was probably not alone in his thinking. And the Devils, as they tried to gain some momentum on the ice, now had the label of being something of a joke in North American sports.
That image proved to be a tough one to shake.
All this meant more fodder, of course, for Rangers fans. Whether it was at games, in front of the water cooler, on the subway, or in the cafeteria, Rangers fans had another weapon to wield against their New Jersey counterparts. It was debilitating. It was demeaning. It was degrading. It was perfect for Rangers fans.
"There was plenty of that, and in many cases, the Devils were an easy target. But eventually, they found their way," said Chris Russo, a sports talk show host on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio who rose to fame on WFAN in the 1990s partnering with Francesa. "They made the playoffs in 1988, and things started to change. Were they the Rangers at that point? No. And they never will be. But they started a process of gaining respect. And with that, the rivalry with the Rangers gained a little more juice, yes."
Indeed, 1988 was when the rivalry rose to a new level. Cute no more, something to joke about no longer, the feud gained some fire on the regular season's final night. In Chicago, with the anonymous, never-say-die Devils clinging to postseason life and needing a win or else, forward John MacLean beat Blackhawks goaltender Darren Pang in overtime with a shot from the slot to post a 4–3 win not long after the Rangers blanked the Quebec Nordiques 3–0 in New York.
The shutout, though, became null and void at that point, as the Devils clinched the Patrick Division's final playoff berth with the stunner at old Chicago Stadium.
New Jersey played on. New York went home. The tables were turned, and a rivalry was born.
That was April 3, 1988. Easter Sunday. Things haven't been the same since.
"I still say it to this day. I'd like to take some credit for the beginning of the New Jersey Devils franchise and what it is today," said a smiling Pang, who also graduated to a career in broadcasting. "I gave up one of the most famous goals in their history, and that team really started to turn the tide for that organization. You could see it slowly starting to build, and that particular team had a lot of talent."
"But yeah, that one is on me," he added, laughing. "They owe me."
The Devils, under the direction of coach Jim Schoenfeld, would go on to orchestrate a Cinderella-like run that landed them on the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals. They won some fans over, they created a buzz, and in defeating the Islanders and Washington Capitals before finally succumbing to the Boston Bruins in seven games, they established a New Jersey brand, an identity of their own — one that didn't sit well with Rangers fans.
"By that time, we hated them, yes," Benigno said. "Everything about them. Hated 'em."
At the head of the turnaround was general manager Lou Lamoriello, a no-nonsense, all-business executive who had a plan, a mind-set to turn this laughingstock into a playoff staple, one that would be respected and feared at the same time across the league.
Players would wear suits everywhere they went. They would shave every day. They would be professional. They would be proud. They would be passionate at all times.
"I always hate to use the word I," Lamoriello said. "Around here, it's We. And we just felt like a change was needed."
Many in the business thought Lamoriello, who had cut his teeth in sports management building up the athletics program at Providence College, was crazy to think his ways would work in the NHL. But he didn't care.
"Lou was and is his own person," said former Devils forward Jim Dowd, a gritty, hard-nosed center from Brick, New Jersey, who became the first Garden State native to play for the team and truly epitomized Lamoriello Hockey. "He had his ways. And it was his way or you're out.
"It wasn't that hard to get used to; people ask that all the time. It wasn't that hard: it was hockey, and it was hockey his way. You did it, because if you didn't go along with him, you'd be out of work."
McMullen hired Lamoriello in April of 1987 as team president. He then named himself general manager and went to work. A year later, the Devils engineered that miraculous postseason run and stamped themselves as playoff contenders every year going forward.
"Lou held everyone accountable in that organization," former Rangers center Mark Messier said, "and success followed."
They didn't always make the postseason, of course, but the building blocks were in place. They were a tad slow in 1988–89, in fact, failing to make the playoffs with just 66 points. But as Lamoriello continued to install his culture within the organization, the team bounced right back. And as he continued to stockpile players through trades and the draft — and as a testament to just how stable a talent base he had established — the Devils made the playoffs in four straight years after that while employing four different coaches.
Imagine that in today's league.
"He was the perfect man for the job," said Barry Melrose, a former NHL coach and now a television analyst. "That's what they needed. Even in those early years, people around the league knew that Jersey had players — John MacLean, Bruce Driver, that group — but they just needed some stability up top."
They got that ... and then some.
"Not just as a player, but as a fan who was aware of what was going on around the league, you began to notice the change in Jersey, sure," former Rangers forward Steve Larmer said. "If you played them at that time, you kind of said to yourself afterward that 'Hey, they have good goaltending, good defense, and they're making it work.' That was their thing. That was what was going to carry them to the next level. And obviously, they did a good job of that for a long time to come."
But all along, the Rangers were still the Rangers. They weren't winning titles yet, but they maintained their superiority complex over the Devils. And after the 1991–92 season, they finally had their chance to exact some revenge for the 1988 Easter Night Massacre.
After the Devils went 38–31–11 for 87 points and the Rangers barreled through the Eastern Conference to finish 50–25–5 with 105 points, the two teams were to meet in the first round of the playoffs for the first time.
It was graduation day for the Hudson River Rivalry.
"In 1992, it was a tough series and a lot of things were happening. There was a lot of emotion out there," Messier said. "Lot of back and forth in the games. In the end, what that means is that both teams were evenly matched and both had the will to win."
Excerpted from Battle on the Hudson by Tim Sullivan. Copyright © 2012 Tim Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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