It was Thursday December 2nd, 2010. Brian Gionta just put the Montreal Canadiens up 1-0 just 11 seconds into the game. I turned to show my disgust to the fan behind me only to notice a block of empty seats. I actually had most of the section to myself. I was part of the very fabricated crowd of 11,434 people watching our love, the New Jersey Devils, get another embarrassing butt kicking at the hands of a team that we usually had no problem beating night in and night out.
That night there were a lot of different emotions in the crowd. Many people were calling for John MacLean to be fired. I was personally wondering why he and half of the players on this team were able to sleep at night and cash their checks at the bank knowing that they laced up every night and put on a performance like this one quite often in front of the fans paying their hard earned money to see their favorite team. It was sickening. Before I was even able to complete a string of thoughts, Lars Eller scored to make it 2-0 Montreal. It wasn’t even stressful anymore. It was bordering on funny. The game finished with a score of 5-1. Any fan that was seeing a hockey game for the first time was surely not convinced to ever come back. At one point, I made a comment to the people that I came to the game with that the Devils should hand out 20 dollar bills to the fans on the way out to make it hurt a little less.
What was so unique about this situation was that we had not experienced something like this in a very long time. Someone like myself, a 23 year old, had never seen this in my hockey watching life. This had been the Devils worst season since 1982 when the team first came to New Jersey from Colorado. Although Devils fans were absolutely baffled at what they were seeing, there was still a confident demeanor about them.
“They were a lot better than what they were showing on the ice,” said Jaime Grater, Devils season ticket holder since 2000. “I stuck around during the tough times because I knew that the good times would be right around the corner.”
Her husband Tony is a diehard Ranger fan. Even he knew that things weren’t as they seemed.
“I wasn’t convinced that they were as bad as their record indicated,” explained Tony Grater. “Until the Devils are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they are always a threat.”
Flyers fans, on the other hand, weren’t so supportive as usual.
“I thought it was hilarious,” said Brandon Ruppert of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “I never try to rub it in when a friend of mine’s team is doing poorly because the Flyers had that one horrible year as well. This, however, was downright laughable.”
Some other quotes from Devils fans about the low point of the season:
“When I saw their record at the halfway point of the season, I was devastated but had some hope that the team had nowhere to go but up,” said Richard Gunn of Thunder Bay, Ontario. “The worst part of it was that I desperately want the team to re-sign Zach Parise and I know with that record and with the way the team looked at that point that the chances of him wanting to come back would be slim. Even though the games were very painful to watch, I still had hope.”
“I was definitely depressed,” said Ricky Caratozzolo. “I knew this team had the talent to compete but game after game they were losing and not even putting up a fight. They were getting blown out quite a bit. As a fan, you always have that faith that the team will turn it around. The media as well as fans of our rivals were thoroughly enjoying our poor season so when the team turned things around for the better it was like a shot of adrenaline. Overall, I am glad to be a fan of a team that could have easily thrown in the towel but decided that they were going to turn things around and make history.”
That is the overall mentality of Devils fans and citizens of New Jersey. While fans of other teams and people from surrounding states are quick to point out how New Jersey is dirty and filled with mobsters and guidos and how the Devils play boring hockey and can’t fill the stands, we are left here with a sense of pride for our team and state that you simply cannot find anywhere else. Most people know New Jersey as a state where the Soprano types roam the streets conducting their business and where garbage dumps and power plants sit right next to houses. What they see is Camden when they get on the Turnpike and Newark as they prepare to enter New York City. What they don’t see are some of the wealthiest communities in the country in Alpine, Saddle River, Franklin Lakes, Mendham, and Rumson. They don’t see the crime, education, and wealth statistics that rival and surpass the levels of success other states.
I did not achieve this level of pride until I left New Jersey to attend Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania for three and a half years. I did not care much about New Jersey and I also thought I wouldn’t miss it much until a few months into my freshman year. I wanted to go back to New Jersey at any cost. I missed the friends, family, diners, boardwalks, bars, food, and other things that make Jersey a great place to live. Imagine living somewhere that can satisfy any need you have. Right up the road in New York City you can do anything you can possibly imagine to do. If you want to go to the beach, just drive an hour down the Garden State Parkway. Go a little further if you want to hit the casinos in Atlantic City. Want a change of pace from New York? Philadelphia is a less than two hour drive down the turnpike as well. I am convinced that anyone that has anything negative to say about New Jersey is just jealous.
The Devils also get a bad wrap for their defensive style of hockey. Jealousy is in play here too. Boring defensive hockey has won the Devils NINE division titles, FOUR conference titles, and THREE Stanley Cups since 1995. Winning is never boring. Right Charley?
Fast forward to Saturday January 8th in Philadelphia. The Flyers just defeated the Devils by a score of 2-1. To the Devils and their fans, it was just the 29th defeat of the season. A season that was doomed from the start and could only get worse. Little did they know that this would be the start of an incredible run that brought the Devils right back into the playoff race. Today, before Friday’s matchup with the Atlanta Thrashers, the Devils are on a run with a record of 20-3-2. They currently sit eight points out of a playoff spot. They are trying to catch the Rangers who are 10 points ahead of the Devils but have played three more games.
Ilya Kovalchuk has been the story for most of the season. During the summer, the Kovalchuk saga raged on as the Devils battled the league for the contract they wanted to give the player. We all know how that turned out. Everyone had their eyes on him. Whenever there was an article written about the Devils, Kovy was referred to as the ‘100 million dollar man.’ Writers and media types had a field day with Kovalchuk in his lowest moment of the season during a shootout against the Buffalo Sabres at home. He approached the net and before he could decide to deke or shoot, he stickhandled the puck off of his stick and was embarrassed as he left the ice. Currently, Kovy is the superstar he was billed to be. Almost every game is a 2-1 victory for the Devils with Ilya scoring the game winning goal. Martin Brodeur returned to form and is playing some of the best hockey in his entire career. Brian Rolston, Patrik Elias, and Dainius Zubrus all had been previously struggling but found their stride on a line together. Kids like Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Vladimir Zharkov, and Nick Palmieri are fitting in perfectly as their careers develop right before our eyes.
Being a Devils fan is about pride. Every year you can expect the same hate coming from the rest of the NHL. You can expect wise cracks made about the state we live in, the shows on television that are centered around New Jersey, and anything anyone can come up with. It is never going to stop. Instead of fighting back, just embrace it. Everyone else is jealous because we get to wake up every morning knowing we have a world of opportunity right outside our door and that our hockey team is going to keep us entertained and probably put up a nice, big, fat win for us.
So in conclusion, Let’s Go Devils.