A Toast to Our Enemy

In most places across the country there is a great sense of unity among supporters of the local sports teams.  Of course, there are exceptions— those that for whatever reason root for a team from beyond the borders where they grew up—but in general, the populace of major American sports towns remain cohesive.  The massive majority of people in this area for example are avid Washington fans.  I’ve seen it with my eyes and heard it with my ears.  What makes this remarkable is the fact that few cities/metro centers can boast the kind of transplant population that D.C. can.  Despite this high number of outsiders infiltrating the city, the majority of the area still overwhelmingly back the Redskins, Nationals, Capitals, and Wizards (D.C. United as well).  Frankly I find it sickening…and I’ll envy it forever.

New York resides on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.  With the relocation of the NBA’s Nets to Brooklyn, the city has at least two teams in all four of the major sports (including one team from the Garden State).  Even multi-team cities like Chicago and Los Angeles don’t deal with it on such a level.  The Big Apple, like any sports town, has its share of out-of-town rivals, obviously Washington being one of those at times.  And the debates and arguments that arise when the two cities match up can be fun and miserable, friendly and viciously heated, and when it’s over we look forward, to the Dallas’ and Philadelphia’s of the world (at least until the next game).  But when you share the same city, the same workplaces, the same homes with an entire army of another teams fans, the feelings of bitterness and sometimes hatred don’t go away when the games and seasons end…the losses fester like old wounds while victories are savored and rehashed for months…years…and even decades.     

While I had dealt with some aspects of the inter-city rivalries as a young child (Jets/Giants, Yankees/Mets, etc.); it wasn’t until May 27, 1994 that I began to understand the magnitude that these rivalries can reach.  The date marked Game 7 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals between the Rangers and the Devils.  I was only 8 at the time, and not all that invested or interested in the series, not like my brother was at least.  If anything, I was probably watching just to impress him by talking about it on his next home visit from college.  The one thing I was sure of was that this was the first time I had ever seen two teams from what I called “home” playing in a match of such gravity: a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, a trip I wanted NJ to have.

The Devils moved to NJ from Colorado in 1983, and like most expansion or relocation teams, were an utter embarrassment.  They looked foolish in their green and red sweaters, and even more foolish as a team on the ice.  Once, after a brutal drubbing at the hands of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, the Great One famously referred to NJ as, “a mickey-mouse organization.”  Essentially, they had no place in the NHL and certainly no place on the ice with him and the champion Oilers.  Then, in 1987, Devils ownership gambled on the Athletic Director from Providence College, making him the President and General Manager.  Lou Lamoriello made his name at Providence by hiring an unknown basketball coach named Rick Pitino to run Providence basketball, and Pitino did, reaching the Final Four.  Lamoriello was a godsend, as he almost immediately changed the culture around NJ.  In his first season, the Devils had their first above .500 campaign, and would reach the postseason in all but 2 years since he joined.  By May 27, 1994 the “mickey-mouse” organization was 60 minutes away from reaching the Stanley Cup finals.  Then this happened:

It had to be them.  It couldn’t be some team from Pennsylvania or Massachusetts or some other place I was familiar to hating, it was those assholes from across the Hudson.  Worse, it was those assholes in school the next day.  For roughly 18 years I’ve been forced to relive that moment.  It didn’t even matter that the Devils would win the Cup the very next year, and twice more after that, because in all of those runs (even in 2001 when they would lose the Cup) they never had to beat the Rangers to get there.  No matter what Devil fans said regarding their Cups, it didn’t faze the Ranger fan, who kept harping back to Stephane Matteau and the 1994 season.  For 18 years I dealt with members of my family, my neighbors, classmates, friends, acquaintances, teachers, coaches, and strangers reliving that moment, typically from the Rangers side of the fence.  Then, on May 25, 2012; a damn near 18 years to the day, everything changed:

“There were a lot of people that felt that was as nice for them as a Stanley Cup win because of who they (the Rangers) were and the history of the two teams. I didn’t appreciate what it was until I lived through it and it was a great experience.” – Devils Coach Pete DeBoer

“I had people putting signs on my lawn and people just stopping and introducing their families to me, people just out of the blue.  They were pretty excited about it. You can just tell from that that was their Stanley Cup.” – Devils Captain Bryce Salvador

“But for our fans it’s even better for them because we play the game, we sacrifice ourselves, but these people they spend their money, they come to the games, they live with people around them. So, it means so much more (to them) because we have to move on and play the Finals. These guys are like, ‘Well, we got our Finals. We beat the Rangers.’ And it was fun for us to see the attitude of our fans like that.” – Devils goalie Martin Brodeur

“In Albany, I met a few Ranger fans and they told me they hate me and we took some pictures and we were laughing about it, but it’s still cool that people come up and they bring up that goal and how excited they were, where they were at the time, what was going on. It’s just neat to see their reaction.” – Devils center and goal scorer Adam Henrique

Brodeur sums it up; to us it was as good as winning the Cup in some respects.  Sure I would have rather win it than not; but it doesn’t hurt to have finally shut up all the fucking Ranger fans.  No more Messier guarantee, no more Matteau, no more 1994.  We had beaten them in the playoffs before, but always as a favorite in the early rounds…never as the underdog, never with a trip to the Finals on the line. 

Tonight, the Devils and Rangers will face off for the first time since Henrique scored that goal.  A goal that fans on both sides will never forget.  It’s obvious, whether you’ve heard me discuss it, were there with me watching it, or are just finding out about it here, what that goal meant to me.  But beyond even that it got me thinking about our rivalries.  I’m as much defined by my hate toward the Rangers as by my love for the Devils.  Every time you beat them it feels a little better and every time you lose it feels that much more painful.  It’s the latter that I envy in places like D.C.  Now, I know that Skins fans around here will harp on the idea that this isn’t true, that D.C. is chock-full of rival supporters, Cowboy fans in particular.  But, it’s not true.  See, I think it feels that way because we’re tuned to see them, even expect to at times.  You don’t notice the guy in the Minnesota Wild jersey because it’s not Pittsburgh.  You’re blind to the guy dressed head to toe in Mariners gear because it’s not the Phillies or Braves.  You ignore the Colts jacket at the desk next to you because it’s not NY or Dallas.  But imagine if the Cowboys and Redskins both played in FedEx, what then?  What if the Capitals and Penguins were separated by only 6 miles?  What if the Braves played in Georgetown and operated like rich, spend crazy, elitists every year, while the Nats toiled away in mediocrity, only to claw their way to the World Series, and see those cross-town Braves warming up in the opposing batters box. 

No, you can’t understand unless you’ve lived it.  And no one’s really lived it quite like the Rangers and Devils have over the last 20 years.  I love it and I hate it, and it resumes tonight.  I can’t wait.