Last night at the Prudential Center, the Devils christened the new Ring of Fire – created to honor former team members and executives – by inducting former owner John J. McMullen as the inagural member. Dr. McMullen was the man who brought pro hockey to New Jersey, moving the then-Colorado Rockies to East Rutherford in 1982 and he owned the franchise for nearly two decades before selling the team to the YankeeNets corporation in 2000 shortly after the team’s second Stanley Cup win. Ironic that former Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was part of the conglomeration that eventaully bought McMullen out since it was the doctor who once famously said of sports’ King George, ‘There’s nothing more limited than being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner’.
Arguably McMullen’s second greatest contribution to pro hockey in New Jersey besides bringing the team, was hiring the man to his right – Lou Lamoriello, a brilliant then-unproven hockey mind who’d never worked in the NHL but had success with everything he did in college – coach and later athletic director at Providence and later the commissioner of Hockey East. While McMullen brought hockey to NJ, Lamoriello brought the culture of excellence that defined the Devils for two decades and gave New Jersey its first (and second and third) pro sports champions. Certainly it was fitting that Dr. McMullen was honored before last night’s game against the Leafs, with Lamoriello in attendance. Especially since both men had a close relationship and McMullen was hands-off in letting Lou do his thing.
“To me there’s no question or a thought any other way that it shouldn’t be Dr. McMullen,” said Lamoriello, surely bound for the Devils’ Ring of Honor himself. “What he did for hockey in New Jersey by bringing the Colorado Rockies here and then making sure it was named ‘New Jersey,’ and you know I spent a number of years with him and that’s all real. His pride factor in New Jersey was something special. And then wanting to bring a championship here was something that he dreamed about and so it’s more than fitting for this to occur and I know that all the players that played for him and all of us who had the opportunity to work for him and with him will cherish everything that he’s done and how he’s done it. He’s a man’s man. You never had to worry about what was on his mind, there was no gray area. But his honesty and his integrity and his own work ethic was second to none.
Another fitting moment came after last night’s ceremony – which was well-done – when Jersey natives Kyle Palmieri and James Van Riemsdyk met at center ice for the ceremonial opening faceoff. Ironically the Devils chose to honor Dr. McMullen by playing like the ragtag bunch that first came to Jersey, falling behind 4-0 before the end of an ugly, dreadful first period in an eventual 4-2 loss. Even Chico Resch said as much during the telecast when he said (paraphrasing) it looked like one of the first periods when he was in net. I never saw Chico play but somehow I doubt he ever gave up a goal as bad as the second goal last night where Cory Schneider looked drunk or stoned misplaying the puck right into his own net. Mercifully Cory’s night ended before the first period as coach John Hynes finally figured out it’s okay to pull the goalie. Of course literally seconds after Keith Kinkaid entered the game the red light went on behind him too. I was kind of wishing we had Chico – or goalie coach Chris Terreri – in net at that point.
I could go on about how last night’s lack of effort in the opening twenty minutes and the fact this team had a reportedly horse**** practice that led to a few off-color words from the head coach should signal major changes are needed. When TWO straight wins are enough to get you lazy again, you don’t want to play hockey. However I’d rather get back to talking about McMullen and his legacy, which I’m the first to admit is extremely mixed. Especially from my point of view since I wasn’t old enough to appreciate McMullen bringing the Devils to New Jersey. On the other hand, I’m old enough to know about the Nashville speculation in 1995 and how the team was almost moved as it was winning a Stanley Cup.
Since it was 1995 and not 2017 with a 24-7 news cycle, it’s hard to tell in hindsight how much of the move rumors were real and how much were for show in negotiations. McMullen himself later said that the reaction from the fans at the team parade for winning the Stanley Cup helped convince him to stay. Personally I do think winning the Cup had no small part in keeping the Devils in New Jersey, there most likely wouldn’t have been enough pressure from the state or the league or fans to keep the team if they didn’t have their 1994-95 run of success. Ironically the move rumors led to one of Gary Bettman‘s defining moments as commissioner when he made a comment during that time about how the tri-state area couldn’t support three teams and was promptly booed when he was interviewed on FOX sports during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and booed louder when presenting the Cup, starting a hockey tradition.
There was also the fact that during his tenure McMullen wasn’t very media or fan-friendly. When asked about the team’s lack of attention and publicity and whether the first Cup win would improve it in 1995 he said dismissively, ‘the team’s the best public relations, there’s nobody better’. He was also a bit parsimonious in terms of paying the players, but fortunately he had a GM who drafted and traded like a wizard in order to build that great Devils team. Ultimately, McMullen sold the team when he couldn’t get a new arena built in his hometown of Hoboken. Ironically the former owner passed away before the Devils’ current arena opened in Newark, after twenty-five years at the Meadowlands where some of the franchise’s best memories – and some of mine as a fan – were formed.