Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sympathy for the (New Jersey) Devil(s)

Last night I experienced the moment that every sports fan dreads: watching their team lose the championship in humiliating fashion.  Luckily I had a work commitment in the evening, and missed the first period of last night's Stanley Cup game, when the New Jersey Devils got tagged for a five minute major penalty, which the LA Kings used to score three goals and end the Devils' two-month playoff battle for the Stanley Cup.  Unfortunately, I did not miss the Kings scoring three more, including an empty net goal at the end that felt like a punch to the stomach.  LA's goalie Jonathan Quick deservedly won the Conn-Smythe playoff MVP trophy for being a living, breathing brick wall, taunting the Devils and their fans with his superhuman ability to negate power plays and swallow up the hardest and truest of shots.  I have to give the Kings respect for playing some amazing hockey, but it doesn't take the sting from the loss.

The road to the Stanley Cup might be the most grueling of any major sports title, both for the teams and for the fans.  The Devils had to win twelve playoff games and defeat three different teams just for the right to play the red-hot Kings for the Cup.  This included an emotional conference championship series against their local rivals, the Rangers, who had been the best team during the regular season.  Many of my students are Rangers fans, and getting to talk hockey and smack in equal measure with them the day after the games was a real privilege.  It also raised the stakes of the results, because I didn't want a bunch of teenagers mocking me.

Hockey wracks a fan's nerves like nothing else because its constant speed and unpredictability mean that no lead is ever safe and that your team can be broken to pieces in the time it takes to go to the fridge to grab a beer.  I've watched hockey on and off since childhood, and it's the game's sheer dynamism (not its brutality, which I don't much care for) that keeps bringing me back.  During all those years of casual fandom it was hard for me to stick to the sport because I did not have a rooting interest in any particular team.  Now that I live in Newark, that's changed.  I only live a short walk from the Prudential Center, and after my wife (then girlfriend) and I attended a game there three years ago I offered her the undying loyalty of my heart and soul.  (Who knew hockey could be so romantic?)  Now that the Nets have flown the coop for Brooklyn, the Devils are the last team that New Jersey has.  (Yes, I know that the Red Bulls, Jets, and Giants play their games in the Garden State, but they do not take the state's name as their standard and so they don't really count.)  Not only that, the Devils have moved from playing at the Meadowlands to a new stadium in my adopted city of Newark.  It made me proud to see my city and my own neighborhood (including the street I live on) being broadcast on national television during the breaks.

I had hoped against hope for a victory parade in these streets.  Past Devils cup winners had to resort to parading around the parking lot of the Meadowlands, which confirms a lot of Jersey stereotypes.  As someone who has chosen to settle in the Garden State, I must say I get tired of the stereotypes and cheap jokes.  This state has the highest percentage of its high school graduates who go on to attend college.  It has the second-highest per capita income of any state in America.  My mayor ran into a burning building to save an old woman's life, what does your mayor do?  For every tax dollar that New Jerseyans give the federal government, they only get back sixty-one cents in return, the lowest ratio of any state.  Effectively, we have to subsidize the nimrods in the rest of the country who mock us with every chance they get.  This state has several top public high schools, beautiful beaches and gorgeous lakes, along with great pizza and a quality diner in almost every town.  You'd never know that from the state's public image as a haven of brain-dead, overtanned louts frequenting shopping malls and nail salons.

Like the state they call home, the Devils have rarely been given their due.  Since 1995, they have been to five Stanley Cup finals, winning three times.  They have missed qualifying for the playoffs only twice since 1987.  By any objective measure, they are one of the most successful teams of the past quarter century in any sport.  Yet when the Devils played the Rangers in the conference championship this year, everyone in the New York media talked about how the Devils needed to "redeem" their loss to the Rangers in the championship round in 1994, as if the three Devils titles since the Rangers last won the Cup in '94 never happened.

Through their quiet, consistent, and unrecognized excellence, the Devils mirror New Jersey itself, which is why I am sticking with them, just like I'm sticking with the Garden State.  Here's hoping they can bring the Cup to the streets of Brick City next year.

No comments: