We say this a lot about things as we get older, but I can’t believe it’s been eighteen years since I was at Game 7 of the Devils’ most recent Stanley Cup championship against the Ducks. Besides the actual game and postgame celebration itself, the thrill when I heard the pre-game scratches and realized fan favorite Ken Daneyko was not among them in what would turn out to be his final NHL game, those thundersticks and trying to get pictures with my box camera all throughout (remember those?), what I remember vividly is dragging myself to the game flu/bronchitis-ridden. My parents were hemming and hawing with me on not going but despite my ill state and the Devils’ tradition of success over the previous decade, I said something pretty clear-minded to the effect of – it might be another hundred years before we get a Game 7 at home for the Cup, I can’t miss out on this.
Obviously I haven’t had the chance to experience a championship since then for any of my sports teams (in-person or otherwise), rendering my decision to gut it out that night the correct one. I don’t want to think about how I would look back on that night if we’d somehow lost, or even if I had just taken the path of least resistance and missed out on a potentially once-in-a-lifetime moment because of being in a sickbed. After the events of the last year plus I’m glad that situation happened in 2003 and not 2021, because at this point going anywhere the slightest bit under the weather wouldn’t even be allowed.
Which also leads me to what was actually a bigger surprise, realizing that the anniversary of a Cup win in Game 7 of a normal playoffs was three days ago, while we were still finishing the second round of the playoffs this year. A reminder that while things are speeding back to normal, we aren’t quite there yet. Buildings are more packed but for the most part not sold out. I haven’t even been to a game of any kind – hockey, baseball or football – since a few days before the country stopped last March. It didn’t seem worth it for the Devils this year, all things considered, both because of ambiance and the team’s current position in the standings. I may wind up going to a Met game sooner or later in the next few months but despite being eligible to buy tickets because I’ve been vaccinated, that still has its own issues atm – re: long subway rides and mask-wearing still being necessary on them in the dead of summer.
By the same token, I don’t want to wait until October or whenever next season winds up beginning to go to a game of any kind now that I’m more or less getting back to normal everywhere else. Being able to go inside most places without a mask in New Jersey felt like almost as big a milestone as being vaccinated. It still remains to be seen how much this pandemic will have changed our lives forever. Hopefully it’ll mean eliminating long commutes for people and fewer people going to work and school while sick. There can be some good that comes out of this, if people and businesses allow it.
It will probably take till October for me to really get back into hockey in any case. I didn’t even remember when the draft lottery was until I started seeing Tweets on it the day before. Although I did wind up watching it on my phone while enjoying a nice night at the park, I wasn’t super invested emotionally, although I was kind of happy we stayed at pick #4…partly cause winning another lotto would have been a bit embarrassing at this point, and partly for the realistic chance we wind up getting Jack Hughes’ brother Luke. Unlike previous lottos, this one sprang up no real surprises this year, only flip-flopping Seattle and Anaheim one spot.
As far as the playoffs themselves, I obviously haven’t been emotionally invested in them either, although the Isles’ second straight run to the Conference Finals was a bit annoying in part because the pick we acquired for them plummeted to the bottom of the first round after they beat the Penguins and Bruins in succession to earn a rematch with the Lightning in the Conference Finals. Or just the semifinals, whatever they’re calling it this year since we have non-traditional divisions. Montreal, the worst team in the playoffs and who probably wouldn’t have even made a traditional playoff is also in the last four of this year’s postseason. We see Cinderella runs every year in the spring, but this one was practically baked in with how weak the North division was combined with the Leafs’ propensity for choking. And once again the NHL’s division-laden postseason led to two of the five best teams in the league (arguably the two best in this case) meeting before the third round of the playoffs, although Vegas wound up faux sweeping the Avs after dropping the first two of their showdown series. For all the Avs’ hype they haven’t taken that next step or even won a tough postseason series yet.
I look all over the postseason and I see prominent ex-Devils everywhere, which makes this postseason more annoying. Particularly on Long Island, which is Devils south with ex-president and GM Lou Lamoriello bringing in former Devils Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac and Andy Greene to supplement their playoff runs the last two years. I’m not even gonna count Cory Schneider who was once a big acquisition here, but is now just a bit passenger there. I want to root for Zajac and Greene to do well since this might be their last, best chance for a title but it’s just too freaking painful to even see them in those uniforms.
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth reiterating – I now know exactly what Derek was going through when the Lightning became Rangers south a few years ago. It’s quite similar, seeing a bunch of fan favorites lead a quasi-rival to success. If anything the Isles are more of a daily rival to us than the Lightning to the Rangers, on the other hand the Lightning actually beat the Rangers in the Conference Finals with some of the ex-Ranger contingent. Now that the position of the first round pick is no longer a major factor, I’m still quite conflicted whether I want to see the Isles win or not. Apart from selfish reasons, having the Isles win a championship would only complicate things for us fanwise even more in the next generation. We already have a handicap going against the Rangers in the same market but were helped in the last generation by the Isles running in place while we won consistently. Now having the Isles win on their way into a new building while we still run in place makes it harder to keep building the fanbase for the next generation.
Still, Greene and Zajac were loyal soldiers for a long time, and both are really at the end of their careers. I would be happy on some level if they won, no matter the uniform. Palmieri has some time left in his career, so I’m not as invested in him winning. Especially after he turned full heel in a late-season matchup with us and started going after our players for no apparent reason. There’s also the matter of ex-Devils on other teams in the postseason. Although Blake Coleman got his Cup last year with Tampa, he’s always worth rooting for.
And then there’s ex-coach Pete DeBoer with Vegas. Might we get the Finals matchup of DeBoer versus former key players Greene/Zajac and his former boss, who once fired him over Christmas break? For the issues I had with DeBoer after 2012, he was definitely just in the wrong place at the wrong time toward the end here, and clearly there were more issues with the organization than any coach was going to solve. He was always a solid coach for a vet team, and a good man who deserved more chances to win, which he’s gotten in San Jose and now Vegas. Amazingly, this year will be the fifth time in nine seasons DeBoer’s reached the last four of the Stanley Cup playoffs…with three different teams. Twice he’s been to the Stanley Cup Final and both times came within two games of the Cup, and his team is favored to beat the Habs (the only team without a big ex-Devil connection although one-time prospect Jon Merrill is on the roster as a depth d-man). Maybe third time can be the charm for ol’ Pete? I wouldn’t be against that.
It just occurred to me without the traditional conferences will they have the Prince of Wales and Campbell Conference trophy presentations this year? Perhaps not, although it would be momentarily hilarious to see Montreal get the Campbell Conference bowl. Also, having no Doc Emrick for the playoffs this year makes it even harder to listen to. The closest I’m gonna get to listening to one of my current or former announcers is Steve Cangialosi doing EURO2021 games, which coincidentally is happening now since he’s doing the Wales-Switzerland game on ESPN. There’s always PK Subban doing ESPN studio work during the playoffs if you wish, though I almost look at him at this point as more of a media personality than a Devil. It would probably help if he or the team could get something accomplished during his tenure here. Still, he’s a good guy who deserves the King Clancy for his charitable work, and we could do far worse than have him as a representative for the franchise at this point.
Hopefully things will get better soon and I can be more invested in the playoffs (and less invested in the draft) when we’re a part of them again.