I documented here some time back, my first New Jersey Devils game that I ever saw in person was Dec. 7, 1995. I was 10 years old, seeing hockey games in person were still an exciting novelty as opposed to a enjoyable run-of-the-mill activity, and the Devils had called up some young pup for a one-game cup of coffee named Patrik Elias. The Devils lost that game to Toronto, 2-1. I distinctly remember Ken Daneyko getting called for a penalty in the final minutes that effectively sealed the game and Daneyko angrily banging on the glass as he was being locked into the penalty box. The AP recap makes no mention of this, though Daneyko did have 14 penalty minutes in the game, but it does misspell Elias' first name as "Patrick".
That was 17 and a half years ago.
For perspective, in that span of time my life has changed in the same dramatic number of ways that anyone's could between the ages of 10 and 27, and perhaps most insanely, the man who scored New Jersey's first goal that night, Petr Sykora, was one of several players I interviewed last spring at the 2012 Stanley Cup Final Media Day. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey's starter that night in 1995, was also one of them.
I'm not sure if that says more about how my life has changed than it does about the remarkable longevity of those two particular players, but either way, it has been a long, long time since I saw that first game at Brendan Byrne Arena. Since then I've seen the Devils play in several different buildings with even more names and and I have been at dozens of games. In that span, New Jersey has won nine division titles, four conference championships and two Stanley Cup championships in addition to the one the team won six months before my first game. I have been at a number of games that were pivotal in both the regular season and each of those runs. I was in the stands at both the Conference semifinals and the Stanley Cup Final in 2003 and I went to a total of four playoff games during the Devils' run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final a year ago.
Last night, however, was a first. I went to a game that was completely meaningless.
In all the years I have considered myself a New Jersey Devils fan, and in all of the games I have bought or otherwise acquired tickets for, this was the first time the Devils had absolutely nothing at all to play for. In the 17-plus years that have passed since that first game in 1995, the Devils have missed the playoffs a grand total of two times before this season. In one of those seasons, the very first one in 1996-96, the Devils missed the playoffs only after losing to former-Devil Tom Chorske and the amazingly-bad Ottawa Senators on the final day of the season.
The second time was in 2011, when the Devils endured a mind-numbingly bad start under rookie head coach John MacLean and later had a brilliant run in the season's final months that cut a 27-point deficit between them and the final playoff spot in the East down to six before they eventually faded into the ether. Ironically, with the Devils not in the postseason, and as a result, me being free of stress, the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs were one of the most enjoyable ones for me in recent memory. Of course, for whatever reason, I did not attend a game late in the season and so it was that last night had the chance to be truly new territory for me.
See, I was actually pretty optimistic about the Devils this season given their strong start despite losing Zach Parise to free agency this offseason, but as the months toiled on and the injuries piled up -- in particular those to Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk -- it became clear New Jersey simply didn't have the depth to sustain a run, and so after a bizarre 10-game losing streak basically nipped any chance the team had in the bud this month, the Devils were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday afternoon against the Rangers. Bitter a pill as that was to swallow, it is something of a relief as New Jersey clearly didn't have the horses to compete with heavyweights like Pittsburgh, Boston or, should the team have miraculously found its way to the Final again, Chicago or Vancouver.
old green and red logo on tickets for club seats while the rest of the arena's tickets featured the current one, I was remarkably unconcerned with the action on the ice, though Elias is still there. Seeing a win was nice, particularly if it drives the fans up in Montreal a little nuts, but if we're being completely honest I was far more excited by the unlimited free food in the club area than I was by the game, and even that lost its novelty after I got sick from eating too many cookies.
To be clear though, I want state that I'm actually very happy about all of this. That seems odd, and I'm not going to tell you some nonsense about how I'm happy the Devils are out of it so I can just sit back and enjoy a game they play. That's lunacy. I may enjoy sitting back and relaxing when any of the NHL's other 29 clubs face off (well, not the Rangers or Flyers), but when the Devils play if I'm going to dedicate two and a half hours of my life to watching I want some incentive. I want there to be a reason. They need to be in the thick of it.
So why am I happy? Well, I came to the realization that in my life I've gone to at least one Giants game in which their fate of missing the postseason had already been written, I've been to an incalculable number of Mets games late in the season in which the playoffs were but a distant dream, I've seen Northwestern football and basketball toil without hope in person and I basically attended Knicks games for an entire decade when there was no point.
But not the Devils.
Mickey Mouse legacy, you've done pretty well for the last two decades. With a track record like that, it's fine if every once in a while you have to watch them play a game when they're already setting up spring tee times.
Of course, if I have to wait 17 more years to see it again, well, I'll be just fine with that, too.