Hockey’s back tonight…sort of


HAMILTON, ON - JANUARY 16:  Alexis Lafreniere #11 of Team White skates during the 2020 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game against Team Red at FirstOntario Centre on January 16, 2020 in Hamilton, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

It’s hard to believe it’s been three and a half months since the NHL (and really the world) came to a screeching halt and hit the world’s biggest speedbump in terms of everyday life. I didn’t realize it’s already been that long until I was thinking back to mid-March and the last time the NHL or any other major sport had any kind of daily relevance for me. We’re now at the end of June and as all the major sports try to creep toward playing, cases are spiking up again around the country, and big-time athletes like tennis’ Novak Djokovic and hockey’s own Auston Matthews are also testing positive for COVID-19.

In some ways tonight’s draft lottery is the NHL’s return to the North American stage, even though the return to play plan was already announced some weeks ago, it’s still a theory to me until guys are actually on the ice and playing wherever the NHL’s going to have its ‘hub cities’. Tonight is really the first big moment for the NHL since the mid-March pause, on or off the ice. This time, Canadian winger Alexis Lafreniere (pictured above) is the top prize at stake for the 24(!) teams with a shot at winning the top pick. Yet, theoretically we might not know who gets any of the top three picks if the blank cards for play-in round losers come up in all the lottery winner spots. You can argue the logic of this one-off lottery if you wish, I know Derek’s not high on it. Rumor is the league may announce its intended hub cities tonight to coincide with the draft lottery.

Personally, as a Devils fan I’m ambivalent to the lottery at the moment. Oh sure I’ll be watching and celebrate in the moment if somehow lightning strikes thrice and the Devils vault into the top three from outside it yet again (though this time they’ll have to do it without lottery good luck charm Taylor Hall). At the same time, it’ll also feel a bit embarassing if we really corner the market on lotto luck Oilers-style. I couldn’t really blame opposition fans for being bitter if that was the case. It’s not even as if our last two lotto wins have set the world on fire yet. Sure, Nico Hischier looks like a solid two-way player and Jack Hughes still has plenty of time to improve on a rookie season that was just as lost as the franchise on the whole. And even winning the lottery under the previous system only just gained us more distant futures as we went from Adam Larsson to Hall to the picks and prospects we got for cashing out on him.

Still it’s nice to have something tangible that’ll finally matter somewhat in terms of one of my sports teams. While the NFL tries to plow through its offseason like it’s business as usual, it’s still the actual offseason. Though I pay little more than casual attention to the NBA (loosely still a Nets fan, but once I started getting into hockey as a teenager I wasn’t as big a basketball fan after that), they’ve been in the same limbo as the NHL and are arguably in more danger going down to Orlando to attempt to add on a few games to its regular season before the playoffs. Baseball, well we know what a disaster that’s been with the sport getting shut down on the eve of the season and then unneccesary and petty labor fights proving to be a pox on everyone’s house dominating the interim before time ran out and a 60-game season had to be implemented without an agreement. At least for once the NHL wasn’t the sport that had to default to a shutdown over labor issues.

Ironically it was the first of these major labor issues under commisioner Gary Bettman that was the backdrop for the Devils’ first Stanley Cup in the 1995 NHL season, which didn’t begin until late January and stalled the momentum the NHL got from a dramatic 1994 playoffs that briefly put the league on track to gain much-needed mainstream exposure in the US, especially after baseball’s own labor issues obliterated their season and dragged into 1995 as well. Instead of an 82-game season we had a 48-game sprint where the league’s two best teams in 1994 both struggled, the Rangers barely squeezing into the playoffs as an 8 seed following their emotional curse-breaking Cup win in 1994 while the Devils finished an ordinary fifth in the East, needing an early Spring surge to avoid the bubble themselves.

Going into the playoffs the story surrounding the Devils wasn’t whether they could win a Cup but rather, would they even BE in New Jersey after 1995? Rumors of a move to Nashville swirled around the team the whole Spring and to me created a bit more urgency for the franchise to win. Even as a teenager then, I felt the team needed to win it all to avoid moving, a little like a real-life Major League movie. Would I even still be a hockey fan if the Devils had moved? I certainly would have missed out on the Devils’ dynasty cause there’s no way I would have rooted for them in Nashville in a pre-WWW age of actually being able to keep up with teams more easily around the globe. I could have pictured being stuck with rooting for the Islanders during their dark ages and becoming disillusioned. Maybe I would have gotten more interest back in the NBA as the Nets became good in the early 2000’s.

Though the Devils were on the road for every series that playoff I knew they could win any series, at least in the East. Detroit loomed out West with their league-best record, and a talented group under legendary coach Scotty Bowman. First the Devils had to get to the Finals though, and they disposed of Boston and Pittsburgh in five games during the first two rounds much to the surprise of the ‘experts’, then in the Conference Finals came the rival Flyers who had the best record in the East and a young, talented team led by the guy who looked like the NHL’s next superstar in Eric Lindros. Philly had disposed of the defending champion Rangers in a second-round sweep, but it looked like the shoe was on the other foot against the Devils as the team from Jersey got up 2-0 with a pair of convincing wins in the City of Brotherly Love.

Perhaps overconfidence kicked in, and the Devils lost Games 3 and 4 at East Rutherford, giving the Flyers back home-ice as the teams went to Philly for the pivotal Game 5. Although many will cite Scott Stevens’ hit on Slava Kozlov or Scott Niedermayer’s end-to-end goal during the Finals as the most memorable play from that year, to me the moment I’ll always think of from the postseason is Claude Lemieux’s pivotal tie-breaking goal in the fifth game at Philly. With the teams less than a minute from OT it had already more or less become sudden death for Game 5, and the Devils staring at possibly being down 3-2 after three straight losses it was the eventual Conn Smythe winner who saved the day, with an assist from the ill-fated Ron Hextall in the Flyers’ net.

Now with the momentum and the home-ice in Game 6, the Devils dominated most of the night and clinched their first SCF berth in front of an approving home crowd. Against Detroit in the SCF while I knew it wasn’t going to be the sweep or blowout people figured I was worried we could lose a tight seven-game series, but the Devils continued to mystify the experts by winning the first two in Detroit, with the aformentioned Niedermayer goal breaking a third-period tie in Game 2. I knew the issue was settled after the Devils’ dominant Game 3 win. I was so comfortable I even fell asleep on the couch toward the end of the third period with the Devils up 5-0. Game 4 wasn’t quite the same fait accompli but after Shawn Chambers’ tying goal at the end of a first period dominated by Detroit, you just knew the Devils weren’t going to be denied at home. It was during the close of Game 4 that another iconic image of that postseason happened.

Grinder Mike Peluso got so emotional over winning the Cup he had to miss a shift or two towards the end of the game breaking down on the bench. Even since then I haven’t seen too many visceral reactions like that, at least during the actual game. Also noteworthy about the clips above is the broadcasting team – the Devils’ own Doc Emrick who’s clearly the best announcer in hockey, and the Rangers’ John Davidson who for a long time was the best analyst in the business before getting back into the NHL in a management capacity. You still can’t have a better duo doing national games. And Emrick, who was associated with the Devils for over two decades got to do the memorable call of their first title.

‘The championship to New Jersey…the Devils win the Stanley Cup!’

Short and sweet, much like the series itself. Fortunately the epilogue also had a happy ending for Devils fans as NJ native McMullen spurned the offer from Nashville at the last minute and kept the team in New Jersey, seemingly at a great cost as McMullen was forced to sell the team just after their second title in 2000. Did the championship and the fans’ reaction at the arena celebration (I refuse to call it a ‘parking lot parade’) several days later compel McMullen to let sentiment win out? Perhaps. Staying in NJ proved to be the best for everyone else involved, as the Devils built a model franchise for two decades while Nashville would get their own popular expansion team in 1998.

Those days seem a long way off now, all things considered. Both because of the state of the current team and society as a whole. Not to mention on a certain level it was depressing realizing it was 25 years since that championship and many of the faces involved with the team are no longer around, other than Ken Daneyko who parlayed being a popular player into a team color guy shortly after his career ended in 2003. Matt Loughlin, who was then a TV analyst is now the team’s radio play-by-play guy. And after Martin Brodeur moved on as a player following the 2014 season, he returned to the organization in a management capacity last offseason.

I don’t want to get melancholy however, I do think better days are ahead though we’re definitely in for some more rocky ones as a country. For the team itself? Well it can’t get much worse than it was the first half of last year.

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1 Response to Hockey’s back tonight…sort of

  1. Derek Felix says:

    I really enjoyed your piece. I forgot to add the Nashville bit. I knew you wouldn’t. I too felt they had to win. I wasn’t surprised either. Especially once they beat the Flyers. I knew they would win.

    Like

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