Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Craig Billington and My Deal With the Devils

Originally written on April 19, 2009. Statistics updated on February 9, 2010.

For whatever reason, I had a poster growing up of the 1991-92 New Jersey Devils in my room. I’m pretty sure my sister got it as a free giveaway when she attended a Devils game with her girl scout troop, but I couldn’t swear to it. All I remember about it in certainty is that the photos were all in black and white and that New Jersey’s goalie at the time was a journeyman named Craig Billington. He and Sean Burke, who I believe was also on the poster would soon be supplanted by Martin Brodeur, who has maintained the post for 16 years, taken dozens of records and won three Stanley Cups.

To call Brodeur my hero is putting it mildly.

Regardless of owning the poster, I didn’t really watch hockey as a six or seven year old. In fact, I didn’t come across a hockey game until I, an eight-year-old up well past his bedtime one Saturday, happened upon MSG Network’s replay of a Rangers-Stars game at two in the morning. I watched and found it entertaining, and for some reason developed a strong fascination with the name of Dallas goaltender Andy Moog, but I remember clearest of all that I knew absolutely nothing about the game. This has since become painfully obvious to me because I remember watching the clock tick down on a Rangers power play and I assumed it was a countdown until the Rangers power play started, rather than ended. How the Rangers could have exacted the timing of an offensive scheme so incredible that it would be called a “power play” in a game of such unpredictable action and fluid motion is beyond me now, but the thought didn’t enter my head at the time.

I also recall another late night viewing of an overtime Rangers loss to the Ottawa Senators, and I became more and more interested in hockey as the season wore on. Interestingly, the Rangers, readily available because MSG Network was a basic cable channel, did not get my support. The Devils were on Sports Channel at the time, a premium network that my parents chose not to purchase. Despite the fact that I grew up watching the Rangers far more, a Rangers team that won the Stanley Cup in my first year as a hockey fan no less, I clung to the Devils. In retrospect, I have no idea why.

The only reason I can come up with is the poster. For some unknown, strange reason, I really liked that poster. That was that. The Devils were my team. This was something that became difficult to handle as the first year I watched the Devils lost to the rival Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a seven-game series that I still consider the best I ever saw for multiple reasons. For one, the Rangers and Devils hated each other. For another, the Rangers and Devils finished one-two in the league that season. For yet another, the series also featured Mark Messier’s famed guarantee, when he declared the Rangers would force a Game 7 despite trailing 3-2 with Game 6 in New Jersey and then backed up that claim with a hat trick in the third period. Lastly, three games in the series, including Game 7, went into double overtime. Game 7 ended on a wraparound goal by Stephane Matteau, which is still a cherished memory for Ranger fans who saw the Blueshirts lift their first cup in 54 years that season, and a particularly bitter one for me.

I will admit I’m glad I saw that game as an eight-year-old rather than a full adult. As a child, I couldn’t process the drama and I since have realized that I would have been far more deeply affected – and depressed – by seeing a loss like that in my 20s. The Devils would bring order to my universe the next year when they won their first Stanley Cup in a shocking sweep of the Detroit Red Wings, but that season was also notable to me because it was the first one in which I would see a hockey game. After nagging my father, he got tickets through business to a Rangers-Islanders tilt at the Garden on April 7, 1995.

Dad took me, my sister and my friend Matt Nedostup. It was my first time at the World’s Most Famous Arena, and while my memories are hazy, I distinctly remember being overwhelmed by the grandeur. The circular shape and the walls on the outside give it an appearance of importance when you see it poke out from between the buildings in midtown Manhattan. This particular Garden was the fourth building in Manhattan to bear that name when it opened in 1968. The previous three had long since been torn down, and given the tradition of its two main tenants, the Garden had seen fairly little postseason success. The Knicks had won two titles in its early years, but none since, and the Rangers’ Cup win in 1994, was their first since 1940. The previous incarnation of Madison Square Garden had seen the Rangers win three in a 12 year span. Of course, that building was shared by another, older hockey team called the New York Americans, who would eventually fold due to an inability to compete with the on-ice success of the newer Rangers, leading some to theorize this was the root of “The Curse of 1940.”

I think the inability to win might have come from an inferiority complex in the organization that developed after the Rangers were often forced to reschedule Stanley Cup Finals games as a result of the third Garden also being booked for the circus. The Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1928 despite having to play all their games on the road because of Ringling Brothers.

The current Garden allows the teams to take center stage, but it is also one of the busiest buildings in the world, hosting not just the Rangers and Knicks, but concerts, conventions, boxing matches and traveling theater – not to mention my brother’s college graduation.

The concourses on the inside aren’t as small as the ones in Yankee Stadium or Shea, but they aren’t large either. The seating area is where the action is. You walk in and find yourself intimidated by its massive and yet intimate feeling. The seats from the higher sections feel as though they are almost on top of the lower sections, and the ceiling has structurally necessitated lines that lead towards the scoreboard in the center. It’s almost as if the building’s feng shui leads you to the focal point. When you sit in it, there are many aspects of it that make you feel as though it deserves its status.

Those, however, were the lenses of my youth. I have since become less enchanted with the grandeur, as I’ve found the Garden to be an impressive place to watch a game for its ability to create energy and make you feel like you’re somewhere special, but it is, on the whole, really not a great arena. The sightlines are not all that spectacular, the seats are outrageously expensive, and the fact that the chairs have leather on them more or less blinded me to it all.

Of course, it is silly to disregard the Garden for these reasons. All arenas are expensive and the energy the crowd brings makes the experience. This game, given the Rangers longtime rival in the Islanders, was no exception. I specifically recall a loud unattractive woman in a Campbell Conference All-Star Game jersey who was particularly vocal, lending much of her ire to referee Don Koharski, a man both legendary for his decades of service to the game, and notorious for being told to “Go eat another donut!” by former Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld during a confrontation after a 1988 playoff game.

“Koharski you suck!”

Those were her words after one penalty. I was only nine at the time, but that was the moment when one of the most obvious truths of sports dawned on me.

You hear the word “suck”. A lot.

It’s a pretty damn important word at sporting events. I would venture to say you’ll probably hear it at least 100 times when you take the kids to a game. Some might have a problem with this. It doesn’t particularly irritate me as a general term, but it does bother me in that I know there has to be something people can say which is more intelligent. Or clever. Or at least mildly less crass. Perhaps my reason for this is that I don’t see a plausible way to quantify suckiness, or rules dictating the nature of suckdom. If determining sucktitude is such an inexact science, it hardly seems like a reasonable way to measure someone’s worth as an athlete or an official.

I’m sure we can come up with something better, but a lot of us don’t really go to sporting events to think hard. Generally, we aim for the opposite. In a sense, that is what makes them great, but at the same time I hope for a greater sign of human intelligence than this. Then again, in the years since, it has become very apparent to me that hoping for that is entirely futile.

This particular game was the night of the NHL trade deadline and the Islanders had been involved in the biggest move of the day, picking up Montreal Canadiens captain Kirk Muller and defenseman Mathieu Schneider. While Muller did not immediately report because he was upset to have been traded from Montreal, Schneider would assist on the Islanders’ first goal that night, as they rallied from a 2-0 deficit to pull out a 4-3 win, prompting loud booing from a sellout crowd at the Garden, which was rather unsettled with their defending Stanley Cup-champion Rangers. Just a year earlier, the Rangers had ended the longest drought in the history of the sport. The night I was there, the defending Champs played nothing like one, dropping their fourth straight game at home.

I remember most clearly that night that my father decided we were all hungry and needed to stop off at a Pizza Hut on the drive back to New Jersey afterwards, ordering a stuffed crust pizza – it was new at the time – and indulging in it while The Doors’ Greatest Hits played on the juke box. “Touch Me” was the song I recall being played multiple times and as I far more thoroughly understand the song now than I did then, it seems just a little inappropriate.

The Rangers would squeak into the playoffs that year and surprise the No. 1-seeded Quebec Nordiques who were in their last year at the Colisee before pulling up stakes and moving west to Colorado, where they would win the Cup a year later in 1996. The Rangers would be out a round later in 1995, meeting their fate at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers who swept them in four games. That year, though, it would be my team, the New Jersey Devils, who would surprise the hockey world as a five-seed to breeze through the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins before knocking off Philadelphia in six games and then sweeping the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings for their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

My first venture to see my favorite team wouldn’t come until six months later, when family friend Sally Bregman gave my father two tickets on December 7, 1995 for that night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the first 25 seasons the Devils spent in New Jersey they played at what was called, for most of its existence, Brendan Byrne Arena, or as I referred to it – and I’m pretty sure I was the only one – “The Byrne.” Brendan Byrne was a New Jersey governor who helped push for the creation of the Meadowlands Sports Complex that would come to house the Devils, the New Jersey Nets and the New York Giants and Jets.

As a thank you gesture, Byrne was honored by having his name grace one of the most lifeless and uninteresting buildings the NHL has ever known. It was probably more fitting for the building to have its uninteresting corporate sponsor name of Continental Airlines Arena starting in 1996. The building would later change its name again to The Izod Center in 2007, but by then the Devils had moved on to the Prudential Center in downtown Newark.

While I would share a number of memories with the building, namely Game 5 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Semifinals and Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals that same season, the Byrne was a beige, boxy home that was plain and uninspired on the outside and felt like a mall as you walked around inside. The concourses were brightly lit and white all the way around. The arena itself wasn’t a terrible place to watch a game. The sightlines were decent and the capacity, 19,040, was likely an early stab at stoking a rivalry with the Rangers, who were in the midst of their drought when the Byrne opened in 1982. Bizarrely, the top bowl of the arena was surrounded by pale blue walls that seemed like an appropriate place to film a blue screen sequence in a movie.

The Devils’ fan base does not always come out in force. My first night at a game the announced crowd was 12,374, downright shameful for the defending Stanley Cup champions. But the fans that do show up are a passionate lot, devoted to their team and not afraid to vocalize their disdain of the Rangers. One tradition in the building is to hum aloud a generic arena pump up song and then yell “Rangers Suck!” Sometimes this is followed by less of the crowd with the all too tasteful “Islanders Swallow!” Another tradition follows that the fans yell out “Sucks!” whenever a member of the visiting team is announced during the starting lineups.

Clearly we Devils fans do little to separate ourselves from the vast majority.

The Devils would lose to the Leafs by a 2-1 count, their third loss in a row, dropping them below the .500-mark. The game was sealed on a cross-checking penalty against longtime Devil Ken Daneyko, who I vividly remember slamming the door of the penalty box and yelling at referee Paul Devorski as he was sent to the sin bin with less than two minutes remaining. The game-winner came at the hands of Toronto’s Benoit Hogue, and the first goal I ever saw scored by a Devil was potted by rookie Petr Sykora, who would go on to be a crucial part of the Devils’ 2000 Stanley Cup Championship team and play in the NHL for 15 more years, including two more Finals appearances with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That loss, which caused a great deal of booing from the home crowd – apparently I had that kind of effect on teams when I was younger – led many to question the toughness of a still young Martin Brodeur. Despite winning it all the year before, the Devils were struggling and would wind up missing the postseason that year, unable to defend their Cup. As of today, Marty, as we Devils fans affectionately call him, has since accumulated three Cups, four Vezina Trophies and an NHL record 590 career wins and 108 career shutouts. To say that Brodeur assuaged those fears in the years since would be putting it lightly. Instead of being considered immature, he is now remembered as one of the greatest netminders to ever play the game.

Interestingly, the Devils were suffering from a number of injuries among their wingers at the time I attended my first game. This forced a number of minor league call ups including a young left wing named Patrik Elias. My first Devils game would be the NHL debut for Elias, who did not reach the scoresheet that night. Elias would score a number of important goals as a Devil, however, including the winner late in Game 7 of the 2000 Conference Finals against Philadelphia.

On March 17, 2009, Marty would break Patrick Roy’s record for most career regular season wins in a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Elias would play a role, assisting on the game-winner by Brian Gionta. That assist would be the 702nd regular season point of his career, making him the leading scorer in Devils history. I didn’t realize until years later that I had been there for the start of Elias’ career. Of course, being all of 10 years old at the time, it’s foolish to assume I played any sort of role. But it’s still a fun thought.

Marty, despite an early fascination with Claude Lemieux, has permanently established himself as my favorite player of all time. At times I think that is a bit unfair, however. After all, it was Brodeur’s predecessor Craig Billington, who got me to make that deal with the Devils in the first place.

As far as sports go, it’s one of the best I’ve made.

No comments:

Post a Comment