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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