Saturday, October 7, 2017

Perdition on Ice: The Rocky Start of Jersey's Devils

MY MACHINE SHE'S A DUD, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.

Bruce Springsteen penned those lyrics in 1973, part of the 7:04 love song-turned-concert jam fest Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Nine years later, with a little bit of metaphorical foresight, those words could have applied to the Garden State's first National Hockey League team, the New Jersey Devils, who debuted 35 years ago.

Strangers in a swamp land.
Far from a random appellation, the Devils got their name from the legendary Leeds devil, rejected spawn of Mrs. Deborah (Smith) Leeds of Galloway Township, a mother of 12 who wanted nothing to do with a 13th. "Let this one be a devil," she reportedly said.* And so it was that said child, once born, fled into the Pine Barrens from which it periodically emerges to terrorize the locals.

Its namesake hockey team too was rejected, twice. Born in 1974 as the Kansas City Scouts, the franchise lasted just two years in western Missouri before relocating to Denver as the Colorado Rockies. There they languished for six more seasons before being shipped east by John McMullen, owner of Major League Baseball's Houston Astros.

Ensconced in the brand new Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, the Devils were comprised almost entirely of players other teams didn't want, a kind of icy purgatory if not exactly hell.

Their primary benefactor was the reigning Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, whose castoffs New Jersey general manager and coach Billy MacMillan readily acquired, despite having been voted off the Island himself as a player six years earlier.

Among the luminaries stocking the original Devils roster:
  • ex-Islanders goalie Glenn Resch, former NYI forwards Dave Cameron, Hector Marini, Steve Tambellini and Yvan Vautour, plus ex-Isles defenseman Bob Lorimer**;
  • ex-New York Rangers defenseman Carol Vadnais;
  • future three-time Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville
  • World Hockey Association survivor Mike Antonovich;
  • struggling former first-round pick Paul Gagne;
  • reluctant Finnish defenseman Tapio Levo
  • team captain Don Lever;
  • U.S. Olympic hockey star Neal Broten's brother, Aaron
  • and MacMillan's brother, Bob.
They were a talent-poor squad crashing a metropolitan area that featured an Original Six franchise and, arguably, the best team in the world. The Rangers lost the Stanley Cup finals in 1979. The Islanders won the chalice in 1980, 81 and 82. The Rockies had been to the playoffs. Once. In 1978.

Homesick Finn Tapio Levo, the team's best defenseman and
forward Hector Marini, whose solid first half made him the Devils first all star

If there was any chance of alchemy by proximity to their Long Island progenitors, that likely vanished just days into the season when MacMillan dealt center Merlin Malinowski to the Hartford Whalers for still another ex-Islander, enforcer Garry Howatt, and speedy forward Rick Meagher.

Clad in red, white and green sweaters emblazoned with a stylized red NJ crest, those first edition Devils finished Hades in the NHL's Patrick Division with a record of 17-49-14.***

For a time, their breakout star appeared to be Marini, an energetic forward unable to break into the Islanders talented lineup. He started the season strong and was New Jersey's lone delegate to the All Star Game at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum. Marini even assisted on one of three goals scored by the Prince of Wales Conference in a 9-3 Campbell Conference blowout. Wayne Gretzky scored four times for the winners. It was downhill from there.

The inaugural season ticket pitch. It wasn't entirely hyperbole.
Though Marini soon faded, MacMillan assembled the Kid Line, featuring Broten, 22, flanked by 20-year-olds Gagne and Jeff Larmer, an early-season call-up who potted 21 goals and 45 points in 65 games. Broten lead the Devils in scoring with 16 goals, 39 assists and 55 points.

Their top-scoring defenseman, Tapio Levo, posted seven goals and a team-best 40 assists, but he didn't want to be there. Coaxed to rejoin the team in October, at season's end he left for home, never to return.

It was not all for naught. Their lousy finish enabled them to take forward John MacLean sixth overall in the 1983 NHL draft. He lasted 14 years, scoring 701 points, second in franchise history. Already in the pipeline, defenseman Ken Daneyko, their all-time games leader, whose sweater number 3 is retired, and high scoring forward Pat Verbeek.

Those three men would team with Broten and the yet-to-be-drafted Kirk Muller to lead the team to the playoffs in 1987-88. Though the road was long, the Devils finally won Lord Stanley's cup in 1995 and again in 2000 and 2003.

*Though accounts of her fateful utterance sometimes differ.
** With the Devils' first first-round pick, in the 1982 draft MacMillan took Rocky Trottier, whose older brother Bryan already starred for the Islanders.
*** That's ties, not overtime losses, which weren't introduced until 2005-06.

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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Discovery's Long Journey Through Time and Space

LISTEN. Starship Discovery has come unstuck in time.
A 1979 fanzine celebrates ST's return

Blame it on a highly localized distortion in the space-time continuum, a Kerr Loop formed from superstring material, the slingshot effect or the Guardian of Forever.

Blame it on Q.

Call the Temporal Integrity Commission or just call it fate, the U.S.S. Discovery, NCC-1301, took flight Sunday night, 40 years after it was designed by Ralph McQuarrie, the artistic visionary who gave Star Wars its retro-futuristic aesthetic.

McQuarrie's concept was created for a never-made first Star Trek movie, variously titled Planet of Titans and Planet of the Titans. That project was scrapped in favor of a never-made TV series, Star Trek Phase II which later morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Thirty-nine years ago this month, McQuarrie's work on Star Wars, Star Trek and the original Battlestar Galactica were the subject of a feature article in uber-geeky Starlog magazine, but there his reimagined starship Enterprise seemed destined to remain. The project for which it had been commissioned, dead and gone.

Starship Discovery's primordial ancestor, the McQuarrie-drawn Enterprise as seen in Starlog 17, October 1978.
The next Enterprise we all saw was the instantly recognizable big-screen version of the original NCC-1701 (no bloody "A," "B," "C," or "D"), not McQuarrie's radical departure. Still fresh in mind, that triangular-hulled ship got a cursory hat tip in a 1979 fanzine celebrating the franchise's revival before fading from view. Or so it seemed.

From the 1979 "Fandom Triumphs" fanzine
There's an ecological efficiency to the Trek universe, the ability to recapture and recycle concepts once they're made a part the canon and even when they're not.

James T. Kirk got his middle name -- Tiberius -- from an animated series episode. Stories commissioned for Phase II were rewritten for The Next Generation. The Enterprise self-destruct sequence in ST III, The Search for Spock was first uttered in the TOS outing Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

Megalomaniac Khan Noonien Singh got his start back in 1967's Space Seed, returned in ST II, the Wrath of Khan and was sill menacing as of 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness.

True to his name, Kahless the Unforgettable has not been forgotten. From his first appearance in 1969's The Savage Curtain, the Klingon Empire's progenitor remains a motivating force for Klingons in Star Trek Discovery.

So it is that McQuarrie's starship finally got a series of its own after languishing in the shadows for years as a study model and spare part.

A space-faring Flying Dutchman, the McQuarrie mock-up drifted through the Trek universe for decades. It was a dim shape hidden in the shadows of the vast space dock in 1984's Search for Spock. Six years later it was allegedly among those ships wrecked in the Battle of Wolf 359 in TNG"s Best of Both Worlds before appearing again in NextGen's Unification.

Ralph McQuarrie's circa '77 sketch, published in Starlog, became the basis for last year's Discovery flight teaser.
Then, 14 months ago, one of his illustrations came to life in a Discovery teaser video: an angular starship hidden within an asteroid that takes flight to a pulsating, hammering soundtrack. Its shape and its lineage were both unmistakeable and controversial. It was a Federation starship unlike any other and it was 39 years old.

The video drew more than 2.3 million views and more than 4,600 comments, among them, "ugh," "hideous" and "USS Cheese Wedge."

To be sure, McQuarrie's ship evolved over its four decades of phasing in and out of the Star Trek universe. The original drawing featured a ship with small, cylindrical nacelles and a solid saucer section. The Discovery test flight version's saucer was ribbed, it's nacelles squared off. The ship as finally seen in episode three of the new series, Context is for Kings, features a never-before-seen saucer of concentric rings.

It's not exactly Ralph McQuarrie's starship, but it's not your father's either. Sadly, the illustrator didn't live to see his vision come to life. He died in 2012 at the age of 82.

Owning it

Last week in this space, I questioned the need for a new Star Trek series, what with six predecessors and 13 feature films. More Trek seemed, well, excessive. Still, I watched the broadcast debut, and then episodes two and three on CBS All Access.

I confess, I'm hooked on its good, evolving story line. It's unlike any Star Trek outing before and that raises a some questions: is it true to Gene Roddenberry's vision? Is it Star Trek in name only? A colleague said Fox's send-up, The Orville, is a better Trek than Discovery.

Heresy?

Not saying I'm not watching. I'm just not sure. Feel free to vent in the comments box below.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive