I haven’t written in a billion years. Mostly haven’t written because I don’t want to dwell too much on the playoffs (damn you, Jonathan Quick!) or the free agency period (e tu, Parise?) and since writing any kind of preview of the upcoming season is stupid because there is no upcoming season, I figured I’d write a short tale (probably not short) about how I came to be a member of the Devils Army. Like most great stories, it features a French Canadian and a redhead.
Picture it, Sicily 1922… Or New Jersey, 1987…
I wasn’t a Devils fan. The New York Islanders were my team. The Isles were created not too long after I was (please don’t do the math) and by the time I began to appreciate ice hockey (1980 was a big ice hockey year for me… and every other American), the Islanders were the best team in the league. It’s pretty easy to root for the local team that’s really good. Plus, my oldest brother was an Islander fan.
He was the only other person in the house who cared about hockey, so it was easy to follow his lead. Also, the Isle’s top center shared my name, even though his parents spelled it wrong. Four straight Stanley Cups validated my choice. Even as the Colorado Rockies were relocating to my fair Garden State I remained a faithful Isles supporter.
My cousin, John, was on board with the Devils pretty much from the get go. I’m not certain what NHL team he rooted for before them. Could have been anyone. I mean, his football team was the Oakland Raiders, so he wasn’t going to like a team just because they were local (obviously, they didn’t have to be very good, either). John’s family and mine lived close to each other (about 20 minutes away), and we’re roughly the same age. We saw each other all the time. John was easily my best friend through high school. So I always kept tabs on his Devils. They were local (scores and news were easy to come by), hockey was quickly becoming our favorite sport, and it did me no real good to root against the Devils (because they sucked).
By the mid-80s, the Islanders dynasty was fading as Gretzky and the Oilers were piling up goals (and Stanley Cups) in Edmonton. And the landscape of the Patrick Division (look it up, youngsters) was changing. John and I saw the writing on the wall – there was a new, rapidly maturing threat to both of our teams. It was you, Lemieux. It was always you. And oh, how we hated Mario Lemieux.
I hated him for his combination of otherworldly talent and ginormous size. John hated him because of those gifts and because he thought the Penguins tanked games during the 1983-84 season to get the first pick ahead of the Devils (they probably did). Lemieux piled up 348 points in his first three NHL seasons. Each highlight reel goal and assist fueled the fires of our hatred.
By the end of the 1986-87 season, John got his driver’s license, and this newfound freedom was a major step in my conversion. We could now, independently, go to hockey games. Sometimes even on school nights! And Devils’ tickets were cheap. We usually got in for five bucks. Not a lot of people were beating down the doors to see that crappy team. These two factors (wheels and anti-Lemieuxness) brought me to accept John’s offer to go to see the Devils and Penguins open the 1987-88 season at Brendan Byrne Arena (look it up, youngsters). It was October 9th, 1987.
There, a fresh-faced, apple-cheeked redhead changed my life. (No, the rest of this story does not take place in an arena bathroom.) His name was Doug Brown. A winger, he played in four games the previous season, registering one assist, but this year he made the Devils lineup out of training camp. He was a third or fourth line player that season, but he would make his mark that night as a penalty killer. The Devils were shorthanded, and #66 (ihatehimihatehimihatehim) was speeding the puck out of his own zone, no doubt thinking how he would set up some fantastic goal once he reached our zone, but then a funny thing happened. This rookie Brown, this redheaded grinder, dispossessed Lemieux of the puck at the Pens blue line. Just picked his pocket! The nerve! Brown went in alone on Pat Riggin, the Pittsburgh goalie. He made a sick move, maybe five fakes, before depositing a backhand into the net for his first NHL goal.
I’m sure if I watched the tape now, it wasn’t as glorious as I remember. Maybe it was just one deke, then the shot. Maybe it was a forehand. But to us (John, John’s brother Jamie and me), it was a staggering play. For me, it was like magic. We would talk about this play the rest of the night, a night that saw the Devils double up the hated Penguins 6-3. We would recreate the play when we played street hockey, bring it up whenever we saw someone get stripped of the puck (“Remember when Doug Brown did that to Lemieux?” “Yeah – but Brown made Lemieux look so much worse!”).
There may have been subtle signs that my hockey allegiances were sliding towards the red and green of the Devils, but that game, specifically that goal, was a cathartic moment in my life. From that moment on, I was a Devil.