Growing up in Southern New Jersey made it difficult to be a New Jersey Devils fan.
My parents aren’t big sports fans, although we did watch the main events such as the Super Bowl or World Series. My father—who was born in Brussels, Belgium and grew up in Northern New Jersey—was a boxing fan and a Green Bay Packers fan. I suspect he was a Packers fan because they were good when he was a child, but in the 1980s, the Packers were terrible and the NFL package had not yet been created, so there weren’t a whole lot of options in Glassboro, NJ. I had the Philadelphia Eagles, the New York Jets and the New York Giants to watch, so essentially, I didn’t get to watch much football, or pretty much any sport during my formative years of adolescence.
My sports allegiances would come to me from my grandmother. She wasn’t a sports fan by any means, but we would visit her once a month while my father was in the Navy. My grandmother wasn’t much of a babysitter, but she knew one thing about children: TV would keep us quiet.
Television was a different experience for us there, especially due to a beauty of a channel called WOR Channel 9. This channel existed in South Jersey as a super-station on cable, but we didn’t have cable yet.
This is when I discovered the New York Mets.
At the time, most of my family lived in North Jersey and I felt more at home there than I did with the Eagles and Phillies fans in South Jersey, so I would root for the Mets. It didn’t take long for me to adopt the other two teams that seemed local, The New Jersey Nets and the New Jersey Devils—a new team to New Jersey at the time.
It was great having these other teams to root for that only a few other kids my age rooted for, but I still couldn’t bring myself to root for the Giants or Jets. I had a problem with them playing in New Jersey, but calling themselves New York, so (as I alluded to in a previous column) I went west and became a Bears fan.
These new teams I rooted for could be followed in the paper in the box scores, which was how most of us kids knew which teams won; the internet was barely a dream at the time. The problem was they all sucked, with the exception of the Bears. In January of 1986, I saw the Bears win a Super Bowl, followed later that year by a World Series win by the Mets.
But that was it. The Devils would soon make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and make it all the way to the Conference Finals, but they would go right back to sucking again. I doubted life would ever get as good as it felt in the mid-80s.
The early '90s brought a smidgen of hope with the Nets putting together a team with Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson and Drazen Petrovic. The addition of Former Pistons Coach Chuck Daly seemed to put the Nets on the path to some winning season...finally. Injuries caused a quick ouster from the playoffs and Petrovic’s tragic death would ensure the Nets were just not ready for prime time.
But I still had my Devils.
The Devils had been winning enough to get into the playoffs each year, but were bad enough to lose in the first round every year. That would change in '94 with the platoon of Chris Terreri and Martin Brodeur in net and a few Hall of Fame defensemen. The Devils would make it to the Conference finals once again, but they would lose to that %*&$ Messier guarantee. The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup that year, but the Devils finally looked good, even great. Young Martin Brodeur looked to have the stuff as the future of the franchise.
The Devils would go on the next year to win the Stanley Cup by sweeping the Red Wings, finally giving me the championship I felt I so badly needed. The Devils played in East Rutherford—not exactly a downtown conducive for a parade, so they decided that their parade would be held in the parking lot of their home at Brendan Byrne Arena.
I had my Cup, but I would not escape the torment of the Flyers and Rangers fans who considered Devils fans pathetic for having a parking lot parade and for not having a city to consider hosting them. I heard this for each of the three Stanley Cups the Devils won, which would cause hours and hours of arguing about how the Devils fan base would always be second rate compared to the Flyers and Rangers.
It took years, but I’ve developed my stance on the thoughts of the Flyers and Rangers fan bases:
1. I would never stop rooting for a team because the other fans weren’t as bountiful. I’m happy with a team that tries to win, puts a competitive team on the ice every year and show results.
2. In the past 70 years, the Rangers have won just one Stanley Cup (1994) and the Flyers have won two (Flyers franchise began in 1967) but none on over 35 years. The Devils have won three.
3. The Devils, regardless of the fanbase, have a very good attendance. They don’t sell out every game, yet they still manage to field a highly competitive team, year in and year out. The Devils are the model for how NHL teams should be run (meaning they should all hire Lou Lamoriello).
4. I don’t give a $%&*# what Flyers and Rangers fans think. We have been the better franchise for pretty much the last 16 years.
I live in Florida now, so I’m pretty much removed from the argument, but it does come from my South Jersey friends when hockey comes up. I can pretty much end the conversation by uttering one sentence: For the past 30 years, it’s better to have been us.