When I was in elementary school, I became a temporary Vancouver Canucks fan, obviously prompted by the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals. At recess, I was beating some boys at punchball and talking about how I didn’t know what a Canuck was, but I wanted them to win. A classmate asked me how could I possibly root for a team that I didn’t even know a single player’s name instead of our hometown team. I swiftly put him in his place by saying, “The Rangers aren’t our hometown team, the Devils are.” I don’t remember what he said, but even after winning three cups in nine years, the Devils have continued to be considered the second-rate team in the Tri-State area. And I’m okay with that.
I was born and raised in New Jersey and have been a New Jersey Devils fan my whole life. I remember when we wore green and red uniforms, and I remember the devastation in ’94 like it was yesterday. My 9-year-old self had never felt such consuming disappointment as when the-name-that-shall-not-be-spoken scored that goal; my hatred for the Rangers was solidified for life. The next season, shortened by the lockout and thusly dragging out my misery, my dad let me and my older brother stay up late to watch the playoffs as the Devils won their first cup. My joy knew no bounds; my guys had just brought us faithful Devils fans the Stanley Cup! I’ll never forget how great I felt walking into school the next day, wearing my red and black with more pride than ever.
Okay, enough going down memory lane. I hate the New York Rangers. I have for as long as I can remember and while now, as an adult, I can respect when they have rookies like Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh, I still hate them. That being said, it’s a healthy hate; I don’t wish them any ill will, I just don’t want to see them win. Can’t say the same for the Philadelphia Flyers, but that’s a horse of a different color.
Last year, there was a lot of talk about how the Eastern Conference Finals were giving the Devils a chance to avenge 1994. I was on the fence about that because it was the first time the teams had met in the ECF since then, but the Devils had been better than the Rangers overall so it didn’t feel like we were the underdogs or that we had an axe to grind.
Until the series started.
I can’t remember a time when I had been more pumped to be a Devils fan. This team had heart and skill, and they had my faith, but they didn’t make it easy. The series was exciting, but it also was nerve-wracking because I truly didn’t have a good feel for whether or not the Devils would make it out alive. I’m not going to rehash every detail, we all were watching and saw how it played out. But even thinking about Henrique’s OT game-winning goal gives me the goosebumps; it was hands-down the most unbelievably thrilling sports moment of my life.
Tonight’s match-up against the Rangers will open the season series and there’s no doubt that both teams will be fired up for it. The Devils, struggling a bit to find their rhythm as they’ve had a different lineup in just about every game since the first two of the season, finally won their first game in eight days – a misleading 3-0 victory over the New York Islanders – while the Rangers come to the Prudential Center off a big 3-2 road win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rock will come alive again for this game, with the energy – and the, let’s call it, passion – of thousands of fans who remember not just last year’s legendary win over the Rangers, but also the heartache of 1994 that will never quite fully dissipate.
But it’s a new year and a new season. The Devils have a 900+ career point scorer in Patrik Elias; the ever-present scoring potential of Ilya Kovalchuk and Henrique; Travis Zajac, the playmaker; David Clarkson, the firecracker; Stephen Gionta, the scrappy go-getter on the third line with Ryan Carter and Steve “Don’t Get Saucy With Me” Bernier; Captain Bryce Salvador holding it down on D; and, last, but most certainly not least, Marty Brodeur and Johan “Moose” Hedberg in the net. I like the sound of all that – and more – on the ice.
I’m sure you remember how the last lockout-shortened season ended. Let’s go Devils.