By Stu Hackel
The Rangers visit New Jersey on Saturday afternoon for Game 3, and on Monday Night for Game 4, of their Eastern Conference Championship series and a case can be made that this is the biggest series in Devils franchise history.
Yes, of course: the match-ups that the Devils won in 1995, 2000 and 2003 to win the Stanley Cup count as huge series, monumental in scope. But now they have a chance to repay New York for that memorable third round defeat in 1994, the decision coming in the second overtime period of Game 7, which sent the Rangers on to the Cup final and thrust the Devils back into their shadows. That was the game ended by Stephane Matteau and it gets played and replayed endlessly on MSG Network, the TV home of the Rangers and the Devils.
And even though the Devils can claim three Cups to the Rangers' one since 1994, in the Broadway Blueshirts' shadow they remain -- maybe not in the hockey world, where the Devs are a respected franchise, but on their home turf in the New York metropolitan area. The Rangers dominate the scene over the Devils as well as the somnolent Islanders and a head-to-head victory in this round might earn New Jersey a bigger, long-deserved share of the spotlight.
I've lived in both New York City and New Jersey and have been around long enough to remember when the Rangers were one of six NHL teams as well as when the Devils arrived on these shores. Among my friends are fans of both teams, those who resent the Rangers for their wealth and perceived arrogance and power, and those who foolishly still cling to Wayne Gretzky's 1983 characterization of the Devils as a "Mickey Mouse operation" after he scored eight points in a 13-4 Oilers massacre of them in Edmonton.
(I was in East Rutherford later that season when the Oilers came in and Devils fans dressed in Mickey Mouse costumes held mouse banners and jeered Gretzky all night.) Personally, I've always found things to admire and dislike about both the Rangers and Devils, but it's plain that the Jersey club has not gotten their due as a terrific organization largely because of their proximity to the Rangers.
The Devils may not have it as bad as the Los Angeles Kings, the senior NHL franchise in California. The poor Kings -- who are now touted by some as hockey's best team -- were dissed on KNBC, their crest unknowingly swapped out for the Sacramento Kings logo earlier this week during a newscast. But the Devils' second-class status in the New York market is evident regardless. It is the Blueshirts who get the lion's share of the region's growing Stanley Cup buzz, like this clever Mike Tanier New York Times article instructing the area's hockey-come-latelies on how to pose as an instant life-long Rangers fan.
An NHL franchise since 1926, the Rangers were here first, as everyone knows, and they have deep roots in a fandom that is passed down generation to generation. They play in the media and business capital of the world, surrounded by skyscrapers and penthouses, their legendary arena populated by a mix of well-heeled swells (some of whom have taken to annoyingly banging on the corner glass from the newly installed, pricey rinkside seats) and raggedy old timers who tell tales of the smokey, ramshackle "Old Garden" 17 blocks uptown, where the team played until 1968.
The Devils, on the other hand, landed here in 1982, almost six decades after the Rangers debuted, settling at the edge of a swamp, off an exit of the New Jersey Turnpike, not far from where Big Pussy and Christopher dumped the bodies of people Tony Soprano had ordered knocked off. Separated by only nine aeronautical miles, the locales of Manhattan and East Rutherford might as well be in different hemispheres: The Rangers, owned by a succession of media empires, heavily promote their team; the Devils, whose ownership is mired in uncertainty, have been guided by one of the NHL's great traditionalists in president/GM Lou Lamoriello. His approach to promoting the team comes nowhere close to his expertise in building a championship caliber club.
Having begun life as the Kansas City Scouts (for two years) and, shortly afterward, the Colorado Rockies (hey, it was a hockey team's name before it the baseball club adopted it), many of the Devils' first fans were renegade Rangers supporters. Young suburban families and proud citizens of the Garden State climbed on along the way. They can't claim much longevity and have been forced to contend with the awful and unfair image that New Jersey carries in the popular imagination, gleaned from the oil refineries and industrial landscapes that border the Turnpike.
What the Devils have always lacked is a sufficient fan base, one that would nightly pack the old Meadowlands arena and, since 2007, their very nice new downtown Newark digs. The Rangers have no such problem filling the Garden and whenever the New York team crosses the river, its flock follows and a sizable number of seats end up being occupied by fans in blue sweaters. The atmosphere may not swing as wildly against the home side as, say, happens in Sunrise, Florida, when the Canadiens come to town and thousands of snowbirds and transplanted francophones from the Hollywood area make the BankAtlantic Center sound like the le Centre Bell, rendering the Panthers visitors on their own ice. Still, the divisions among the fans in the Prudential Center can diminish the impact that a fully invested home crowd provides.
So, earlier this week, someone in the Devils organization got the idea to limit the number of Rangers fans who can get in for Game 3. A "No Blue" campaign popped up on the Devils' website, urging fans with extra tickets to seek ways of dispensing them that would keep them away from Rangers fans and, with "thousands of seats" still unsold for both Games 3 and 4, suggesting that supporters of the home team snap them up pronto. The campaign went viral, and the reaction was as fierce as a Rangers-Devils game, with #NoBlue a top Twitter trender, the reaction both supportive and hostile.
"The campaign has also served as a rallying cry for Ranger fans," according to "The Ticket Geek" blog in The New York Daily News. "While they hardly need an excuse to follow their team into New Jersey - average ticket prices there are at least $55 lower than at the Garden -- this has effectively given them another push. In terms of traffic to event pages for both Game 3 and Game 4, 41.57 perent comes from customers in New York, as compared to 39.09 percent from New Jersey. Even allowing for the fact that there are plenty of Rangers fans in New Jersey, as well as Devils in New York, these numbers might imply that 'No Blue" might not prove successful."
It didn't last long. Someone, perhaps Lamoriello himself, had the page taken down and killed like one of Tony's targets. “I was very disappointed, very disappointed personally, when I heard about that,” Lamoriello said (quoted in The New York Daily News). “It is my understanding that that is no longer out there.”
Lou's reasoning was less economic, apparently, than civic-minded. He was concerned that the campaign would further raise the temperature between rival fans. Perhaps recalling recent incidents like the beating of San Francisco Giants fan Brian Stowe last year in the Dodger Stadium parking lot and the assault on a Rangers fan in Philadelphia after the Winter Classic, Lamoriello said, “Every fan should feel safe coming to games here. Every fan.”
It will be up to the Devils themselves, then, to try and take down the Rangers and heighten their profile. Their record during the last two decades -- especially in comparison to the Rangers -- should have long ago made it unnecessary but, like many things in life, the way it is is not the way it should be.
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