As champagne corks popped 50 feet away, Stephane Richer, still in uniform right down to his skates, punched numbers into a pay phone outside the New Jersey Devil dressing room in the Byrne Meadowlands Arena. Richer already had spoken to his mother in Quebec and now was trying to reach his golf club, where friends had gathered to watch last Saturday night's Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, which the Devils had won 5-2 to complete a sweep of the Detroit Red Wings. The line was busy.
Of all the bouquets owed the swamp-dwellin', trap-playin', Cup-winnin' Devils, the most fragrant in this era of lottery-jackpot salaries is this: New Jersey is not a cellular-phone kind of team. Praise the old-fashioned hockey virtues and pass the quarters.
If Richer on the pay phone in full battle gear looked absurd, that scene was no more bizarre than the celebration that had swirled moments earlier on the ice. The Devils took turns skating with the Cup, holding the hardware aloft and then smooching it, not prissy, salon air kisses, but hard, lips-on-silver smackers. The 19,040 witnesses roared their approval.
THIS IS HELL proclaimed a sign in the southwest corner of the rink, a sentiment with which Devil owner John McMullen probably would not quarrel. McMullen is vexed with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which runs the arena in the Meadowlands, and has threatened to take a sweetheart deal and move the Devils to Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry and Ms. Parton. Goodbye, Jersey; hello, Dolly? Thus, the Devils could become the first team in major pro sports to win a championship in one city and defend it in another.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that the question of the move, which provided discordant background music to the spectacular rise of an underappreciated team, would be addressed after the finals. The fans, who believed Bettman won't stand in the way of a relocation to Nashville, booed Bettman when he presented the Cup to New Jersey captain Scott Stevens, but most seemed to buy Bettman's premise of play now, fret later. Other than the occasional chant or sign -- NASHVILLE ALREADY HAS ENOUGH PEOPLE WITHOUT TEETH read one placard in New Jersey at Game 3 -- Devil fans seemed content to tailgate in the parking lots, knock beach balls about in the stands and let the Nashville story stay in the background. This was a classic case of denial, although it wasn't too hard imagining those Stanley Cup smacks as a last kiss.
To New Jersey. Not to the Cup. The Devils lost a Game 7 double-overtime heartbreaker to the eventual champion New York Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, and they made the next step in 1995. The decisiveness of their win in the Cup finals, however, made it seem like a leap. New Jersey outplayed, outhit and outcoached Detroit in a series that left the Wings as stranded as a seedy hitchhiker. "We never really got frustrated," Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said. "It didn't go long enough for us to get frustrated."
These Devils are no dynasty -- a dynasty doesn't move four times in 22 years, which would be the case if the Kansas City Scouts-Colorado Rockies-New Jersey Devils wind up as the Nashville Dollys -- but they will be among the NHL elite for years if they keep their young stars. Martin Brodeur, the 23-year-old netminder who had a 1.70 playoff goals-against average, and 21-year-old defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who scored a spectacular goal in Game 2, are restricted free agents, and New Jersey has the right to match any offer they receive this summer. The price of victory for a franchise notorious for watching its pennies -- Richer's use of the pay phone is an all-purpose symbol here -- will be steep.
The Devils have the formula for success for the late 1990s: size and speed. Their top 12 forwards were, on average, a half inch taller and nine pounds heavier than the Wings'. And if New Jersey couldn't handle Detroit in a skills competition, the Devils skated better than the flashier Wings. "I thought the guys deserved a little more [respect] from their opponents," New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire said after the series. "That's one reason our guys were aggressive, because they got no credit."
Seventeen Devils had points in the four-game series. Eleven Devils accounted for the 16 goals they scored, including Jim Dowd, who had the winner in pivotal Game 2, the only match he played. Claude Lemieux scored only two goals in the series but deserved the recognition he received as the postseason MVP. Lemieux had just six goals in 45 regular-season games, but after signing a three-year, $3.6 million contract just before the postseason began, he produced his best hockey, rifling in 13 playoff goals, including three game-winners. "I wish we would have taken the deal for Lemieux when they offered him around in February," Red Wing coach Scott Bowman said. "He's a clutch player who scores a lot of important goals."
Which was something Detroit certainly wasn't doing. Throughout the four games the Wings had no time to make plays, because New Jersey was in their faces, breaking up rushes, deflecting shots, forechecking their defense. Detroit, which averaged 36 shots per game in the first three rounds of the playoffs but were limited to 18 against New Jersey, hadn't seen anything like it all year.
Of course, the Red Wings hadn't seen the Devils all year. Because of the compressed schedule that resulted from the lockout, east played east and west played west. And west seemed best. "Ten minutes into the first game I knew we were going to win this series," New Jersey center Bobby Carpenter said. "We hadn't played them, we saw they had the best record, we heard how good they were, and we didn't know what to expect. But in those 10 minutes we found we could play with them, check them. I knew then we were going to win. Winning it in four, that was a surprise."
The series hinged on Game 2. After practice following Detroit's 2-1 opening-game loss, Paul Coffey gathered his fellow Red Wings in a corner of the Joe Louis Arena rink. Coffey wanted to remind his teammates that they had no excuses for the Game 1 stinker. Coffey, with four Stanley Cup rings from his days with the Edmonton Oilers (1984, '85 and '87) and the Pittsburgh Penguins ('91), rightfully was exercising leadership. However, if a player is going to speak out, he'd better be able to back up his words. In Game 2 Coffey was on the ice for the first three New Jersey goals in the 4-2 defeat.
With 90 seconds remaining in the third period of a 2-2 game, Coffey dropped to block a shot from the point by Bill Guerin. Coffey does many things well, but he did not become hockey's most prolific offensive defenseman by hurling himself in front of an incoming puck. When Guerin hitched his swing at the puck, Coffey rolled over too far and wound up almost in the fetal position, his back to the shooter. Guerin's blast struck Coffey on the meat of his left calf, instead of his shin pad. Coffey was immobilized as play continued. New Jersey's Shawn Chambers followed up with a shot from the right point, which goaltender Mike Vernon directed right back into the slot with his blocker. The anonymous Dowd, a Jersey guy from Brick, a shore town an hour from the Meadowlands, swept in a backhand for the winner. "This is a great state with so much to offer, but it sort of doesn't have an identity," Dowd said. "That's like our team. We don't have much of an identity either."
The knock against the Devils hadn't been their substance but their neutral zone trap, a stifling defensive style. But in Game 2 the Devils uncorked hockey's two big showstoppers: elegant goals and big hits. Niedermayer's darting rush on Coffey from inside the New Jersey blue line and his finish of the play -- he batted his own carom from the back boards while it was still six inches off the ice and stuffed it past Vernon -- was among the loveliest goals of the playoffs. Stevens's second-period shoulder-to-chin hit on Detroit's Slava Kozlov made Kozlov a leading candidate to replace the Yugoslav ski jumper in the agony-of-defeat opening of Wide World of Sports. Back on the bench Stevens gazed out at Wing pot-stirrer Dino Ciccarelli, pointed to his own shoulder and mouthed the words, "You're next."
Stevens jabbed and jawed with Ciccarelli throughout the series but kept his poise, unlike during last year's series against the Rangers, when the only thing he wasn't able to check was his emotions: He continually was caught out of position as he tried to be a human earthquake. "Scott's taking charge of the defense now," Lemieux said before Game 3. "He's committed to being the toughest guy back there and also the strongest and most disciplined. He's the defenseman everyone is going to fear."
Detroit's confidence and resolve were shot after the Game 2 loss. When they entered McMullen's Inferno for the third game, the Wings played as if they had abandoned all hope, and New Jersey pumped four goals past Vernon in the first 29 minutes. During the second-period intermission Bowman and his staff jumped the Detroit players worse than New Jersey had. The 5-2 final was merely "a good publicity score," said Bowman, who told his players that some of them should head to the bus without showering because they hadn't broken a sweat. Hockey's winningest coach called the game "embarrassing," "humiliating" and "unacceptable" -- a hat trick of disgust -- and his most painful loss ever.
For the first 25 minutes in the Devils' Cup-clinching win, Detroit showed some moxie before New Jersey settled down and applied the sleeper hold. Five minutes into the second period the Red Wings were outshooting the Devils 13-8. The final total: 26-16, Jersey. Detroit was tucked in for the evening and going nowhere.
Of course on Saturday night no one could say that with certainty about the Devils. New Jersey had made the arduous transition to Stanley Cup winner from Mickey Mouse team -- Wayne Gretzky's assessment of Jersey in 1983 -- but the Devils have always seemed like a collection of transients, tenants in Ranger country.
Why is this good, big, tough, smart team the NHL's stepchild? Maybe the largest metropolitan area in America never really wanted a third hockey team to go along with the Rangers and the New York Islanders. Maybe it is the Devils' dearth of marquee players. Or maybe it is the trap.
"Too bad you didn't like the show," said Lemieux after the game, responding to a question about the Devils' methodical style. "You can go watch something else."
New Jersey fans may have no choice next year.