A few weeks ago, the NHL Network’s Facebook page posted a poll asking fans to choose the best rivalry in the NHL. Out of the six options, Devils-Rangers finished fourth with about ten percent of the total vote. Polls like this are largely a popularity contest and their results are far from empirical, but it is an interesting insight as to how NHL fans feel about the rivalries in today’s league. With all due respect to the rivalry the Flyers and Penguins have cultivated over the past half-decade, and to the history of the Montreal-Boston rivalry, among others, I have the feeling most of the fans that voted in that poll have never approached a Devils fan and asked them how they feel about the Rangers and their fans. I think anyone who has experienced this rivalry first hand, on or off the ice, understands that the animosity between the Devils and Rangers and their fans cannot be boiled down to Matteau, Henrique, and geographic proximity. It is an incredibly passionate and personal rivalry that simply has no parallel in North American professional sports.
It is often quite difficult to explain what the rivalry is like, at least from the perspective of a Devils fan from New Jersey, to people who have not experienced it before. When I say to someone who is not intimately familiar with hockey or the NHL that “the Devils are playing the Rangers tonight, it’s a pretty big deal”, I have gotten the responses comparing it to all of the standard North American rivalries; “oh yea, it’s like Eagles-Cowboys/Red Sox-Yankees/49ers-Seahawks/Mets-Phillies/Jets-Patriots”. No, it isn’t. I have seen the back-and-forth between Flyers fans and the huge number of Pittsburgh transplants in Philly, the “Fuck the Dodgers” t-shirts on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, and I have been right in the middle of the New York-Boston-Philadelphia rivalries and have seen them all from every angle. As vicious as a lot of those can be, there is a cultural element present in the Devils-Rangers rivalry that sets it apart from the common divisional foes template from which many modern sports rivalries are cut.
New Jersey is a state that has forever struggled to gain acceptance as a culturally unique place. Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin described New Jersey as “a keg tapped at both ends”; an early suggestion that New Jersey exists only as extended suburbs of New York and Philadelphia. For our entire proud history, both lifelong residents and outsiders have neatly divided New Jersey into two culturally distinct regions: North Jersey, whose residents are supposed to culturally align themselves with New York and support their sports teams, and South Jersey, where people are of course supposed to be born in Phillies-red pinstripes. It is still a common narrative that there is not the capacity for New Jersey to not only host major professional sports, but for a cultural identity to exist outside of the confines of the cultural hegemons of Philadelphia and New York. While New Jersey will always be a diverse and divided state, anyone who experiences our state outside of the Newark airport and the New Jersey Turnpike understands that we are far from a bunch of New Yorkers and Philadelphians living together under a common governor. We are a unique group of people with unique ways of speaking, unique sensibilities and values, and for the past 40 years, we have had our own major professional sports teams to represent us as a unique community.
This will probably end up becoming one of the iconic images of the rivalry from this generation
For many Devils fans, including myself, one of the factors that lifts the Devils-Rangers rivalry to another level is the presence of a large contingent of Rangers fans born and raised in New Jersey. While they are far from the majority in any region of the state, they are a visible group throughout New Jersey. For me, and for many Devils fans in New Jersey, a Rangers fan from within state lines is much less benign than your common outlier fan who chooses to be rebellious and support the local rival team. A Rangers fan from New Jersey is someone who has a limited amount of respect for the place they come from, and damages the efforts of New Jerseyans who have fought to represent our state as a place with a unique culture and people. The Devils are one of New Jersey’s most important and influential cultural institutions, and some Devils fans take personal exception to fellow New Jerseyans choosing to participate with a community many have tried so hard to distinguish ourselves from.
There is also a socioeconomic factor that some perceive to separate the two fan bases. The Rangers are viewed by many as the white collar area team, playing in the heart of one of the wealthiest places in the world. Tickets are expensive, the seats are filled with Manhattan professionals in suits, and there is definitely an atmosphere of prestige around the Rangers. I would certainly guess that there is a statistically significant relationship between wealth and team support within the New Jersey hockey community. The perception of wealthier hockey fans from New Jersey aligning themselves culturally with a wealthier area and supporting the Rangers creates another unique layer of tension between Devils and Rangers fans that other sports rivalries do not experience.
If you are asking me, I would tell you that these Rangers fans simply support a team from out of town. I will never call the Rangers another “local” team, and I will always consider every Rangers fan in New Jersey a common interloper. When I see a car with Jersey plates and a Rangers sticker or people in Jersey flying Rangers flags outside of their houses, I do take their support as somewhat of a personal affront. I wonder how they can care so little about where they are from that they identify with a different community; again, a community we as New Jerseyans have tried so hard to distinguish ourselves from. These fans perpetuate the narrative that New Jersey is not a culturally unique place, and it is not a community people identify with. We perceive their very existence as insulting and damaging, and that is what elevates this rivalry.
Is this an insane and completely unreasonable response to the existence of people who support a different group of grown men playing a children’s game than I do? Yes, and that is what makes the Devils-Rangers rivalry one with no equal in North American sports. Without the element of the plague of Rangers fans from New Jersey, Devils-Rangers does become just another run-of-the-mill rivalry; two teams with geographic proximity and a history of competing in big games filled with plenty of intensity between the players. It becomes Yankees-Red Sox or Blackhawks-Red Wings or Cardinals-Cubs. Devils fans would still find Rangers fans to be obnoxious hockey-unintelligent people more interested in jumping on trends than what is going on on the ice, and Rangers fans would still think whatever it is they think about us. It would still be a great rivalry, and hopefully one day, that is all it will be. Let’s go Devils.