Bedeviled In Jersey They're a smart, tough hockey team battling for their third championship in nine years. So why don't the Devils have more admirers?

June 08, 2003

The New Jersey Devils, who are more serious than C-SPAN and
watched by about as many people, returned to the Meadowlands for
Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals on Thursday after squandering a
two-game series lead to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The 1-0
overtime victory by the Ducks on Monday injected a sorely needed
jolt into the matches if not necessarily into the TV ratings,
which tend to shrivel in the austere presence of a New Jersey
franchise that inspires as much ambivalence as admiration.
Too bad, because the Devils are practically everything that is
right about sports: They win often, and they win as a team.

If New Jersey finishes off Anaheim, the Devils will match the
accomplishments of the fair-haired Detroit Red Wings over the
nine seasons since 1994-95: three Cups, four appearances in the
finals and six 100-point seasons. New Jersey has certified stars,
but its top players--goaltender Martin Brodeur, the NHL's best
since Patrick Roy announced his retirement last week in a
shameless scene-stealing moment, and captain Scott Stevens, the
most feared blueliner of his generation--are defenders. They
comport themselves without the self-aggrandizing that leads to
bulletin-board quotes like the one thoughtfully provided by
Anaheim fourth-liner Dan Bylsma, who said before the finals that
he looked forward to having Stevens shake his hand and
congratulate him on winning the Cup. Perhaps just as important in
these financially tight times, the Devils win on a relatively
slim budget; their $52 million payroll this season was about 35%
less than the profligate New York Rangers'. They throw hard work
and commitment at problems instead of money.

So why does New Jersey win Stanley Cups but not the fans' hearts
and minds? The answer: The Devils are victims of their franchise
location, playing style and front-office attitude. This is
largely due to circumstance, but some of the damage is
self-inflicted.

The 21-year-old New Jersey club represents a buzz-free bedroom
state, which precludes having the sort of cachet that envelops
Original Six teams such as the sexy Red Wings. This is hardly the
Devils' fault. Nor can the team be blamed for playing to its
strength, a constipating defense whose effectiveness in the 1995
Cup finals heralded the yawn of a new era in the NHL. On the ice
the Devils seem dull even when they take the fire wagon out for a
spin, as they did in the wacky second period of their 3-2
overtime loss in Game 3 last Saturday, when the two teams traded
rushes like penny stocks. "I hear people talk about our boring
hockey," New Jersey defenseman Tommy Albelin said last Friday,
"but I watched the tape of Game 7 [of the Eastern Conference
finals] against Ottawa and thought it was awesome. Back and
forth. Lots of scoring chances. I don't know what is meant by
boring style."

The Devils do not do a good job of attracting fans and selling
tickets, which is their fault. Team president Lou Lamoriello has
never fretted much about empty seats in the 19,040-capacity
Continental Airlines Arena--New Jersey averaged 14,859 fans
during the regular season and did not sell out a home playoff
game until the third round--or about ephemera such as TV numbers.
(Game 1 last Thursday drew a 1.4 rating on ESPN.) The Devils'
success must speak for itself, because they make it hard for
anyone else to speak for it. They did not allow NHL Productions
to mike their bench area--a request that the Ducks granted--and
in a delicious moment of paranoia that epitomized the New Jersey
front office, a staffer checked for microphones under the bench
and around the lip of the boards before Game 1 to make sure no
one had pulled a fast one.

The Devils also stiffed ESPN and ABC, which enter the final
season of a five-year, $600 million contract with the NHL next
fall, by not making coach Pat Burns available for quick
interviews just before the puck dropped in each game of the
finals or permitting players to be interviewed away from the
rink. Commissioner Gary Bettman had to intercede on ESPN's behalf
to get a camera and a reporter placed between the benches during
the first two games in New Jersey. "I've had it with Lou
Lamoriello," says Mark Quenzel, ESPN's senior vice president of
programming and production. "With Lamoriello, if you try to show
anything but the rolling puck, it's no. He cares only about his
team, not trying to market the NHL."

The Devils are unconcerned with the Big Picture if it interferes
with the team picture traditionally taken on the ice after
winning the Cup. The first New Jersey player who would hoist the
chalice is Stevens, the personification of the fierce, quiet
Devils. The 6'1", 215-pound captain plays with a physical, almost
feral style, unlike any other 39-year-old defenseman in history.
"He has presence," says teammate Ken Daneyko, who, like Stevens,
was drafted in 1982. "This is why he'll go down as maybe the best
defenseman ever." (Loyalty is one thing, forgetting about Bobby
Orr is another.)

Stevens has never won a Norris Trophy, but he has won more
games--regular-season and playoff--than any other NHL player
except Mark Messier. Stevens passed Larry Robinson's postseason
record for games by a defenseman with his 228th playoff match
last Thursday in Game 2. This proved to be Groundhog Day at the
Meadowlands, complete with Bill Murray (the name of the Devils'
trainer) and a second straight 3-0 rocking-chair shutout for
Brodeur in which New Jersey limited the Mighty Ducks to the same
puny 16 shots they had in Game 1. When Anaheim star left wing
Paul Kariya appeared to find a sliver of open ice in the second
period of Game 2, Stevens skated across the rink and smacked him
into the boards; Kariya, who was held without a shot for the
first time in 30 career playoff games, all but disappeared.

"I carried the puck a little more than Scott," says Robinson, a
Hall of Famer who is the Devils' special assignment coach, "but
he did everything I could do and maybe more. He could have played
in any era. Maybe Scott isn't as offensive-minded as Denis Potvin
or Raymond Bourque, doesn't play a lot of power play, but in
terms of importance to his club, there's been nobody better."

Teammates call him Dad, which is warmer than his earlier NHL
nickname, Bam Bam. Stevens earned that with his concussive checks
and caveman style. A hothead who was easily goaded into
brawls--he averaged 204 penalty minutes his first eight seasons
with the Washington Capitals--Stevens has become more
disciplined, in large part because Lamoriello's Devils do not
allow players to indulge themselves. Stevens was obtained by New
Jersey in September 1991 and had an epiphany in the mid-'90s
under coach Jacques Lemaire, who schooled him on keeping his
temper in check. In the past seven seasons Stevens has reached
the 100-minute mark in penalties just once.

That discipline has made him one of the most dependable
defensemen in the NHL. "Everybody can say he's played with guys
who, when they're on the ice, you're thinking, Uh-oh," says John
Madden, the Devils' superb checking center. "Never have I felt
that way about Scott Stevens. In fact, it's to the point where we
say, 'Don't worry, Dad's out there. He'll take care of it.'"

The one time Stevens wasn't out there in this year's
playoffs--after a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Pavel
Kubina early in Game 3 of the second round opened a large gash on
Stevens's left ear that required 15 stitches--New Jersey crumpled
in a 4-3 loss. Stevens returned with a protective earflap on his
helmet for Game 4, scoring on a slap shot that closed out a 3-1
victory.

In the first two games of the Cup finals, the Stevens-led defense
was immaculate while the stagestruck Mighty Ducks were poultry in
motion, a phrase used to describe their halting expansion efforts
a decade ago. To that point Anaheim's only contributions to the
finals were to its lexicon. Coach Mike Babcock lamented trailing
"two-cobb" (2-0), talked about the need to play "greasy"
(hard-edged) and said the team should use better "puck
management," as if he were behind the bench of the Mighty MBAs of
Anaheim.

The Ducks, who needed to catch a break in the series even more
than the ebullient Babcock needed subtitles, wound up with a
whopper in Game 3 when Brodeur lost his stick playing a
second-period dump-in by defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. The puck hit
Brodeur's stick on the ice outside the crease and deflected
through his legs, a play Anaheim center Adam Oates described as
"a double dingo." This was the ultimate funny goal, funny as in
strange and funny as in ha-ha. The nonplussed Brodeur saw the
black humor in it after Anaheim's sixth straight overtime win,
but he was not giggling about the Mighty Ducks' pronounced
advantage on face-offs. Oates's clean win on an offensive draw
against Pascal Rheaume--Anaheim's 122nd win of the 202 face-offs
to that point in the series--led to defenseman Ruslan Salei's
winner.

By winning Game 4 on Monday, goalie J.S. Giguere extended his
overtime mark to 7-0 and Anaheim put added pressure on the Old
Man with the C. For New Jersey, the momentum was gone but home
ice beckoned. The Devils, who can't seem to win for winning, will
try to stave off the Ducks with no frills, no gimmicks. It may
not be pretty, but if you want pretty, try the Guggenheim Museum
in nearby New York City. If you want a Cup, call Lamoriello.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA (DEVILS) [COVER INSET] STANLEY CUP Unappreciated, The Devils Go For a Third Title in 9 Years COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA GREAT SCOTT His temper has been tempered, but Stevens (beating Ducks center Rob Niedermayer to the puck in Game 1) remains a fierce presence. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO NOTHING BUT NET Patrik Elias roofed this puck past Giguere in Game 3, but the Ducks were mightier in a 3-2 OT win. COLOR PHOTO: BILL KOSTROUN/AP (INSET) LOU CAN DO The dour Lamoriello (right) has built a championship team around Brodeur (above) and Stevens. COLOR PHOTO: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS [See caption above]

"Lamoriello cares only about his team," says Quenzel, "not trying
to market the NHL."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)