Did New Jersey Devils Really Kill Hockey In The 1990s?

U.S. President Bill Clinton holds up the Stanley Cup (JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. President Bill Clinton holds up the Stanley Cup (JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP via Getty Images) /

This week, one of the most famous sports personalities Bill Simmons was speaking to fellow basketball savant Ryen Russillo about hockey. It happened on the Bill Simmons Podcast, which is usually the most downloaded podcast in all of sports. It came up during a long segment on the basketball playoffs, something they do every Sunday. Although, hockey almost never comes up in their conversation. This was a wildly positive segment about the greatest sport on ice. However, it was until mentioning the New Jersey Devils brought it to a halt.

Simmons brought up that tired notion that the “Devils killed hockey”. He brought up the neutral zone trap, and then they moved on. This is a common conception among fairweather fans to the sport, especially older ones. It was easy to blame the Devils’ new style on the lack of scoring and a league that moved from ridiculous scores and some of the most popular players in the sport. Here’s the thing, though. During this era, the Devils actually only won one Stanley Cup, and that was their only deep run in the postseason.

Wikipedia conveniently goes all the way back to 1995 for NHL Stanley Cup ratings. That 95 Stanley Cup Final was watched by an average television rating of 3.4 (which, in laments terms, means that 3.4% of TVs who have a Nielsen box were watching the Stanley Cup Final). Last year’s Cup Final would have killed for a 3.4 rating. This was also a four-game sweep by the Devils.

The ratings actually grew from there, with the matchups for Colorado-Florida and Detroit-Philadelphia doing better ratings than the Devils-Red Wings matchup. They did fall in 1998 and 1999, but that probably had more to do with FOX’s glowing puck and other nefarious decisions in how the games were broadcast than the Devils’ impact on the game.

In 2000, when the Devils went back to the Cup Final for the first time since that neutral zone trap team won it all, the Cup Final did a 3.7 rating on ABC. It was the best rating of the NHL’s five-year run on ABC before the 2004 lockout. Ratings were dropping, and they hit a bottom point when the Flames-Lightning series drew an average 2.6 rating. However, early rankings really tanked that because Game 6 still did a 4.2.

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After the 2004-05 lockout, many hockey fans didn’t come back right away. The 2006 Cup Final between the Hurricanes and Oilers had two games that failed to reach 1 million viewers. That hadn’t happened in years. They bounced back and actually had 5.3 million viewers for Game 7, but those early ratings really hurt them. The same happened the year before, where Anaheim and Ottawa never got a rating over 2.0 in their six-game series.

This doesn’t even look at this Devils team as a whole. This was a team led by stars in Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, and eventually Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez. They were always compiled in drama, and they played in a market that people loved to hate. Suffice to say the Devils were actually good for hockey. Also, and this part is obvious, the Devils used the trap under Jacques Lemaire. He learned a version of it from his time with the 1970s Montreal Canadiens dynasty. He was no longer coaching the Devils after 1998. So, that 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup Devils team was not a “trap” team.

So, everyone can blame the Devils all they want but look at the numbers. The ratings show that it wasn’t the trap that killed hockey, it was the league. They let broadcast partners make very strange decisions in how they represented the game, and then they literally took a season off to get more money from the players. Blaming the Devils is an old, tired notion that has no backing whatsoever.