"They SCORE! Henrique!!! It's OVER!"
That was the call from former New Jersey Devils play-by-play voice and hockey broadcasting legend Mike "Doc" Emrick after center Adam Henrique scored in overtime on a mad goal-mouth scramble to propel the Devils into the Stanley Cup finals for the fifth time in their history.
When Doc screamed those words, they resonated with Devils fans beyond the impending trip to the Stanley Cup finals to face the red-hot Los Angeles Kings. Whether or not Doc was referring to anything beyond that precise moment, to me it meant that the gigantic monkey that's been on Devils fans' backs for 18 years had finally been not only taken off, but slapped around, kicked in the nether regions, taken out back behind the barn and shot.
Yes, the Devils have won three Stanley Cups since the epic Eastern Conference finals loss to the New York Rangers in 1994, but there was one scar remaining in franchise history that the three silver chalices couldn't mask. Hell, even if the Devils had won every Cup since 1994, that loss in 1994 would still hurt like massive splinters jammed under Devils fans' fingernails. Henrique finishing New York off last Friday night was one of the greatest sports moments of my life.
I've been a Devils fan since 1986, when Alain Chevrier was tending goal. Even though I grew up in Boston, I always had a tendency to like teams based on their uniform color; since red and green have always been my favorite colors, the Christmas-tree-outfitted Devils were immediately appealing to me. This always caused much consternation in my father and three of my four rabid Bostonian sports fanatic brothers, who couldn't understand why I would stray from the home teams that they so loyally embraced, especially because the New Jersey franchise was simply terrible at that time and the Bruins had such a rich history.
Yet I never swayed despite the intense familial pressures. I didn't care that the Devils were terrible and that I had no ties to the Garden State other than being one-quarter Italian. My dad always looked at me with a bit of pity as my team was labeled a "Mickey Mouse" franchise by the greatest player in the sport, was still a transient organization fresh off moves from Colorado and Kansas City, and was regularly run over by the Big, Bad Bruins.
I used to grab a radio and go into a tiny corner of my house in northeastern Massachusetts to pick up a very static-y radio broadcast of Devils games. For some reason, this was the only spot in the house I could pick up Devils broadcasts on the radio. This was long before DirecTV sports packages and the Internet made the idea of "home" teams sort of irrelevant. I put in hard time with the Christmas-tree-looking boys.
In 1988, the team took a slight turn toward respectability with a miraculous John MacLean goal on the last night of the season in overtime against Darren Pang and the Chicago Blackhawks. That momentum sent the Devils to the playoffs and carried them all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, where they ran into (you guessed it) the Boston Bruins.
The Devils pushed a much better Bruins team to seven games, but their momentum couldn't carry them any further than that. Devils goalie Sean Burke became my new hero; I created a Sean Burke shrine in my bedroom. I didn't understand the Devils and their rivalries just yet -- it might've been that a rivalry doesn't become a rivalry until both sides are respectable. My Devils hadn't achieved that yet. I was 17 years old at the time.
Fast forward to 1994, when the memories of Burke and Chevrier and Bob Sauve were gone, replaced by this young first-round draft pick named Martin Brodeur. The Devils started to make a nice run in the playoffs, beating the Buffalo Sabres in the first round and then the Bruins in the second round. My dad passed away of a massive heart attack in 1990, so I never fully got rid of that look of pity he had for my hockey rooting interest after my team finally beat his team. But when the Devils faced those Rangers that year and took a 3-2 series lead heading back to New Jersey, I hoped that the Devils were finally going to shed that loser tag, that "Mickey Mouse" title. What better way to do it than against your most hated rival?
Only -- as most of you know, given the bright, searing spotlight placed on it this past week -- Mark Messier's guarantee and subsequent performance squashed that dream. To make matters worse, former Devils play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne, who worked for ESPN as their "National Hockey Night" go-to guy, seemed as though he was in pure ecstasy over this turn of events. It's almost worse, at least for me, to hear Thorne going absolutely bananas especially on the empty-net goal Messier scored to complete his hat trick in Game 6 to force a Game 7 back at Madison Square Garden. The three worst words a Devils fan can hear are, "Matteau, Matteau, Matteau."
Well, until last Friday night, at least.
I also happen to be an Oakland A's fan (remember when I told you my favorite colors?), so I know about the agony and ecstasy of sports on the grandest of stages. Kirk Gibson, anyone? This would be like Dennis Eckersley getting another chance at facing the Dodgers for all the marbles, having the same exact circumstances in the game and actually coming through this time. I was so nervous about the Devils game I skipped watching the first two periods but I finally broke down and watched the third period and overtime. I just couldn't imagine going through that type of heartache again. I was 22 back in 1994. I'm 40 now, with a history of heart disease in my family. I couldn't fathom that kind of pressure on my heart. But I sucked it up eventually, and thankfully, I was rewarded with pure rapture.
Yes, the Devils are moving onto the Stanley Cup finals and I desperately do want them to win one more Cup for Marty, but 2012 has already been a resounding success for me as a longtime Devils fan. They not only beat the hated Rangers, but they also fairly easily dispatched their second biggest rivals in the Philadelphia Flyers. I have this Devils team to thank for lifting that 800-pound gorilla off our backs. Now when I hear, "Matteau, Matteau, Matteau," or about "The Guarantee" from another obnoxious Rangers fan, I can just comfortably ease back into my chair and remember, "They SCORE! Henrique!!! It's OVER!"
It most certainly is. It most certainly is.