Tag Archives: devils

Season’s End

For the first time since Labor Day weekend, my car does not have a bag of pucks, coach’s whiteboard, hockey stick and some collection of gloves, jackets, helmets and skate repair kits clanging around the rear hatch. Today ended another season of Mites hockey, my third as a team coach and fifth as a development squad coach, and perhaps for the first time I understand what university professors must feel as a stellar class of students leaves for the real world.

I started coaching travel hockey three years ago, when about half of this team were U6 Mites. They were wobbly, funny, and sometimes more concerned about whose birthday party was after the game, or if they had an itch under their helmet. Today I saw them passing, shooting, supporting each other and showing every aspect of a game that’s ready for full ice, full sized nets, and full score keeping. It was a pleasure to see these kids grow up with hockey as part of their lives.

I got to coach my first tournament – and took a silver medal. I’ve been there as a manager, and as a parent, but never with the responsibility for ensuring the team had a wonderful tournament experience. Despite losing the medal game, it was the type of bonding and mildly exhausting trip that will be etched into hockey memories.

I got to be Coach Santa and Coach Leprechaun. My repertoire is expanding, and the kids seem to love taking pictures and hamming it up with whatever alter ego is calendar-appropriate.

I had the pleasure of sharing the bench with two men who played at a high level, versus the beer league and education-through-sports casting training I’ve had. They brought an amazing mix of humility, humor and knowledge to each game.

At the end of today’s game, concluding our in-house tournament, amidst handing out medals and cupcakes, I took 30 seconds to talk about each player. It was the easiest public speaking I’ve ever had to do, and it happened without notes, because I just had to say what each player made me think.

It was a mixed year outside of Devils Youth hockey – a full season (so far) without Saint Patrik Elias, the patron saint of dangle pie in our house; a horrendous season for the NHL Devils yet one in which I still follow every game; a year in which I got to see playoff hockey in Prague and see my Princeton Tigers return to the ECAC playoffs (and win a series for the first time in nearly a decade); the first year in which I didn’t play in a single adult beer league game due to work, travel and injury schedules. But when you see 11 small players throw their gloves in the air, pile on their goalie and celebrate like they’d just won the Stanley Cup, it’s a good year of hockey.

2014: See Ya

On the whole, 2014 was a good year. Rather than making a semi-structured list, I found myself thinking about two extremes — things that were absolutely delightful, and things that gave me pause for 2015.

A Year of Live Music: Four Phish shows in three states, with four newbies in tow. Animals as Leaders twice in small venues. Tony Levin with both King Crimson and Stickmen, at opposite ends of the venue spectrum. Joe Bonamassa at his best; Dream Theater at their most average but still quite good; Flux Forteana at a downtown Boston pub. Also subscribed to Concert Vault, featuring the best of “Bill Graham Presents”, which has reinforced my love of (recorded) live music.

A Year of Travel: Four visits to Prague, three to Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, a return to Seattle after 30 years, only one trip to the Bay Area, a first visit to Curacao. Discovering local food in each city (especially Seattle!) was as much fun as returning to favorite haunts. Celebrated my 52nd birthday in the oldest city in recorded history, with good friends. Prague is a new favorite place to visit and work.

A Year of Waning Fandom: For some reason professional sports just didn’t capture my interest this year. The Yankees were lukewarm from April til September; the Devils are wallowing in middle age and directionless; I have ignored professional basketball since the Nets moved out of the Meadowlands. Even my beloved Tigers failed to show on the ice or finish on the hardwood. On the other hand, youth hockey is alive and well, and I have a great group of 6 year olds who get up for 7:00 am games at outdoor rinks. A visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame taught me things about our family’s sports allegiances that I had never known.

A Year of Small Miracles: I survived a fairly bad car accident, mostly through the benefit of seat belts, air bags, and a fraction of a second. One of my fellow hockey coaches beat his leukemia into remission. The Devils signed one of my favorite players whom I’ve wished to see in the tail and horns for years (Mike Cammalleri) and then proceeded to play non-miraculous hockey. I caught a 40-pound rooster fish at the end of two days of completely quiet sport fishing.

For all of the good and positive, there were some decidedly strange moments. We stayed at the Revel in Atlantic City during the last week it was open, and then watched a third of the city’s casinos financially implode. I found myself worrying about our “adopted” Israeli daughter, when she called quite late at night during her Army service. While giving a ride to some fellow Phans for the Mann Center shows, I got the sense that if you’re in your mid-20s, it’s a hard time to be financially independent. And with the number of security events (both large scale and more personal, like fraudulent credit card charges) I think we’re looking at a year calling for more diligence and caution in all electronic interactions.

Hockey Is Back

Hockey is back, and despite all of the bad feelings during the lockout, I’m loving it. Devils win, Flyers lose, Rangers lose.

I watched the Penguins-Flyers game just to bark at the Flyers in a warm up for the Devils home opener on Tuesday.

I’ve made up my first nickname of the season – the Kovulchuk-Zajac-Zubrus line shall be known as the Scrabble Line (total value 63, and only Valeri Zelepukin would be worth more than Zajac, based only consonant placement and not puck control).

It’s great seeing the big fourth line from the playoffs — the CBGB (Carter Bernier and Gionta’s Brother) line — back as the third line, and rookie Stefan Matteau anchoring the fourth line. Marty looks like the rest and late start served him well. Patrik Elias’ “skating age” is much younger than his chronological 36 and change. Zid looks stronger than the beginning of last season. Travis Zajac is still the man.

Everything hockey related is clearly rust-tinted. A line’s worth of Devils making sloppy passes. msg.com website was down for an hour. NHL’s scoreboard didn’t provide any updates for most of the evening. And some things never change – the MSG Network Islanders announcers still cannot pronounce Patrik Elias’ name properly, which is both disrespectful to Patty and their own profession.

Ryan Sutter-Zach Parise are a combined -2 in their Minnesota debut. I guess $194 million doesn’t go as far as it did pre-lockout. Maybe they’ll realize that Heatley isn’t the same kind of playmaker as Zajac or Elias.

#hockeyisback people. Loudness ensues.

Round Three

The Devils win four in a row to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in nine years. There aren’t that many bills I look forward to getting, and Round 3 Stanley Cup Playoff tickets set the bar pretty high.

Where do you start being proud of this team, as a fan? Playing hard every shift, consistently sticking to a system? Avoiding retaliatory penalties, even when Rinaldo, Giroux and Simmonds were dirtier than the bathroom in a South Street Philadelphia bar at three in the morning (they’ll have plenty of time to verify my comparison now). Marty not being at all fazed playing the puck, even under pressure? Stephen Gionta hitting about a foot larger than he stands? Kovulchuk’s power play goal, coming from Zubrus winning a monster faceoff in the zone? Even JR gave Kovy props in the post-game.

It starts behind the bench, with DeBoer retaining his composure through every situation. Compare him to Tortorella, who must be nursing a sore throat by the midway point of most games, or Laviolette, who pouts, frowns and gesticulates like he’s a marionette whose strings are wrapped around a drill bit. Up and down the coaching staff, you can see the development of the younger plays, the poise that the playoff newbies have exuded, and how every player focuses on every small detail.

This team is fun to watch. And we get to watch for at least another round of playoffs.

Teamwork and Accountability

We can dish out blame for last night’s Devils playoff loss all over the place: the inconsistent referees, the fact that Kovulchuk skated like he’s got a “lower body injury” (groin, hamstring, torn back), DeBoer’s line shuffles that accomplished nothing, Marty’s decision to play the puck without looking at the forecheckers, Volchenkov once again managing to take himself (stickless) and Zach Parise (borrowing a stick) out of the play. This one is way beyond blame for individual details or efforts.

The Devils lost as a team, just as they did in the Game 3 disaster. The question is: do the Devils have the team work and the individual accountability, and those things in the right proportions and blends, to win two games in a row, and make a playoff run that doesn’t end with a May Day call? As players, coaches, and trainers, when you look in the mirror, before, during or after Game 6 and (hopefully) Game 7, please make sure you can honestly say that you’re delivering on your end of the experiences we expect, we demand, and we hope for as your fans.

I had hoped, entering this season, that it would be a neat bookend to the first year in which Ben and were season ticket holders – the 99-00 Cup run, the first year he played ice hockey. In this last year regularly sitting next to me at dinner, on the couch and at games, I’ve probably over-rotated on high expectations, facing a shortly empty nest. But at the same time, sports memories from our last year in high school sit on the saddle point of experience. They are the net summation of people, places and things chosen for us by older family members, and the first events we can pick through given the independence of spending money, a driver’s license and formal adulthood.

Baseball had diminished interest for me in 1979 until my first sports hero Willie Stargell led his Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series as I wrestled with college applications and parallel parking. Stargell united a diverse group of players; the “We Are Family” soundtrack to their pennant run wasn’t just a media post-production effect. They came together as a team, played as a team, and won as a team. Everyone did their part. Just a few months after he died in 2001, I had the opportunity to pick a jersey number of my own and I remembered my fondness for all things related to first baseman, number 8, Willie Stargell. The twin circles on my back are a continuous refresh of those memories that illustrated sportsmanship, leadership, bridging differences and taking personal responsibility for winning.

There are lifetimes of memories waiting to be created – for our families, for the Devils team’s families, for fans and potential fans across the Garden State – and two games in which to make them.

Kovulchuk Is A Devil

I’m flat-out delighted that Ilya Kovulchuk will be a New Jersey Devil for the next 17 years. The last time I was this happy was when Elias signed a 7-year deal assuring he’d play in New Jersey until the Bubba graduated from high school. Kovulchuk might be the first player that we cheer through four generations of my family: my parents, me, our kids, and with the length of this contract, possibly some grandchildren. Don’t tell my kids.

Kovulchuk wears #17 in honor of Valeri Kharlamov, whom he was only able to watch on tape, sitting with his father. It’s a story I wouldn’t mind telling to some new leaves in the family tree.

Blogging during the press conference now being streamed on the Devils website

Parise, Brodeur and Elias sitting in the front row, talking like it’s the first day of school and they’re all discussing what they did on summer vacation. Kovulchuk looks relaxed, he’s making jokes, and he said quite simply “there is unfinished business from last season.” He admits to being nervous, and he’s joking from the stage. It’s hard not to like this guy. “I’ll be a Devil for life”. Jersey does that to you.

Do Stan Fischler’s questions add value or only repeat the obvious? I think the question answered itself.

Here is some of my own thinking about this 17-year deal: The Devils are thinking long-term, and are building the value of this franchise. Every playoff game played in the Rock earns the Devils about $1 million (16,000 tickets at an average of $50 plus concession sales net of operating costs). If the Devils play five more playoff games over the next few years, the team could eat the end of this contract and still be ahead on operating margin.

Devils’ End

It’s just about four weeks since the Devils’ season ended and I’m finally rational enough to write rationally about it. I think this was the most uneventful, non-season in the decade I’ve been a season ticket holder, and therein lies the problem.

Lou signed Ilya Kovalchuk, but Lemaire couldn’t figure out how and when to manage him, and how and when to let him freelance, so an opportunity was wasted.

When veteran players were hurt (Clarkson, Martin, Elias) the young guns from Lowell played well, and the team had a fine November. The fire and energy seemed to disappear after Christmas. In particular, Paul Martin looked like he was afraid of contact, puck control, speed, and possibly the groundhog’s shadow after he returned. Disappointing, and you wonder what the deeper root causes are for such a tail-off in performance.

Whatever happened between White and Langenbrunner at the start of the season didn’t do much for White. I’ve never seen a veteran defenseman stand around, miss his man, and generally be useless in defensive situations. And then Lemaire put him in front of the net on the power play, which sums up Lemaire’s attempts at coaching this team. During the last game versus the Flyers, the Devils spent an entire power play passing the puck along the perimeter, without anyone moving to create space, or create time to a shooting lane to open up. When someone with a USA Hockey Level 2 coaching card recognizes this problem, you have a huge problem on both sides of the bench.

After the first of the year, the Devils just looked like they were mailing it in. Inconsistent play, random defense, and the constant juggling of lines and player head games were disgraceful. You can’t blame just the coach or the GM or the players; it’s a combined team effort from the front office to the guy who drives the Zamboni on the practice surface. Everyone has to want to win, and has to work like that every single day. Perhaps the Devils have just become complacent; playoff apperances and division titles are nice and everyone collects paychecks with a reasonable summer vacation. Look at what Mike Cammalleri has done in Montreal, where he came in with a great attitude, a love for the game and the city, and pissed off at some previous employers: They’re in the Conference Finals and Cams is leading goal-scorer in the playoffs. That’s what wanting to win does.

The fans don’t like this. The players shouldn’t like this. And I’m pretty sure that the Devils money-losing season means that the ownership doesn’t like this. I’m expecting wholesale shakeups in the off season, and the signings of Tedenby and Josefson are great starts. What they lack is a coach that will let the captain lead the team, and an intimidating presence like Stevens, and some mutual trust between players, coaches, and leadership. We can only hope that we’re able to see beyond our current, collective impression of the Devils and let the youngsters lead the way to an improved state.

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Devils SuperFan Auditions

The Devils held auditions for the role of “SuperFan” last Sunday. Three of us showed up, which captures the problem and issue in a sentence or less. I found out about the event through Devils Fan Club officer Jen Talpins, with whom I used to share season tickets. Didn’t see it on Facebook, or Twitter, or in an email blast from the club. Not an auspicious start for fan-domonium.

Here was the setup: We reported to the Prudential Center on Sunday at noon, signed in and had mugshots taken after signing a release allowing use of our images, content, likenesses, and other potentially copyrighted items, in perpetuity. That’s as close as I’ll get to having any personal piece of the Rock. I brought along a resume listing relevant work experience: 22 years as an office Santa Claus, 6 years as Frosty the Snowman, voice-overs for commercials on WPRB-FM, three years of DJ experience, blogging, twittering and FaceBooking with a cast of tens, if not hundreds. It was intentionally equally doses of serious and humourous, because that’s the essence of being a fan. Begin Willie Stargell quote: It’s supposed to be fun. The man says “Play ball,” not “Work ball.” In the true snowman spirit, SuperFanDom is about fun.

Devils Superfan Auditions: Cowbell232
Cowbell, camera man and judges. Don’t try this at home.

Devils SuperFan Auditions: Cowbell on  the hot seat
The hot seat. At least we didn’t have to do stadium drills.

Fun lasted 90 seconds as we were marched onto the Rock floor, nicely free of ice and painted logos, but scarily empty save for the judges’ table and the in-house camera man. Judges included a VP of marketing, the ever-popular Heather, and former Devils captain, HNA goalie and stand-in fan Bruce Driver. We each had a turn on the hot seat, lonely in front of 16,800 empty but nicely padded seats (no jokes about how the Devils feel some nights, that’s the problem we’re trying to solve). After a round of questions from each judge, we got 90 seconds of music as accompaniment for free-form cheers, attempts to rile up Bruce Driver, t-shirt tossing, and anything else we wanted to do. Captured above in mid-cheer is Cowbell 232 of HFBoards.com fame.

Questions spanned the entire range of supposed fan emotion: What does it mean to be the Devils SuperFan (aside from comfort with camel capitalization)? What do you think would be the hardest part of the job? Do you think the role is different in different parts of the arena? How would you deal with adverse (read: Ranger, Flyer and occasional Habs) fans? How will you make the transition from fan to employee (that is, you can’t watch the game, you have to watch the fans?)

With a bit of editing, post-traumatic tryout stress relief, and a solid helping of humble pie, here’s what I said:

The job of the SuperFan is to eat, sleep and breathe fire for the Devils 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 1/4 days a year. Before and after games, between games, during the off-season. Once fans are in the building, the in-game production staff does a good job of keeping them entertained. I think the number one problem requiring a super-anything is getting butts into seats. We have a spectacular arena, with good food, a championship caliber team, exciting young players (some of whom will get or require branding, visibility and fan bases) and the lower bowl is half empty most weeknights. I don’t think people want more copies of last season’s t-shirt guy, nor do they want to be told how to cheer. They want to have a memorable experience, and the Devils should want (a) for fans to come to a game for the first time and (b) to have such a spectacularly fun time that they want to come back, preferably more than once.

There’s clearly a difference between the upper and lower bowls. The fans who are regulars in Section 232 (like Cowbell) don’t need, or want, a SuperFan to come up. It’s a community, and you don’t invite yourself into someone else’s block party unless you’re a member of the block. Better to give them an outlet to amplify their energy and efforts (check out the boards; the Devils marketing staff puts its mouse finger there to get a pulse). Downstairs, you have corporate season ticket holders, one-timers, and honestly, a lot of empties. The fine line to walk is between being the “funny fat guy” that makes kids stand up and cheer with you and being the loud, annoying guy that sits behind you and jeers Gomez every time he touches the puck. I think fan volume is self-amplifying – the more fans there are, the less you need a SuperFan as a tubocharger, and the louder the building gets on its own power. Again, my goal for SuperFan would be to fill the lower bowl, which happens before the game, not during the game.

Driver asked a great question about being the public face of the Devils – which I think is entirely outside of the scope of the job. The Devils have the Devils Dancers (who were warming up in the lobby waiting for our auditions to end), NJ Devil (the only NHL mascot with a porn mustache), and the players. There’s no need to add another face or image to the team’s branding; if anything it’s distracting. Yet another reason why “the sweaty t-shirt guy” is a bad idea; what the Devils need is grass-roots support stemming from grass-roots involvement. I’d rather take the role of SuperFan to the bloggers, tweeters, meeters and greeters, and hold a pre-game TweetUp, or invite bloggers into a suite for a game, or hand out half-off coupons for future tickets to anyone who wears pink to the rink in October. Once you’re in the arena, and having fun, and picking your favorite player, it’s addictive.

Ten years ago, I took a six-year old boy to a game in October. While we were cheering for Vadim Sharifijanov (#8 at the time), we noticed a 24-year old player sporting #26 who seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and smiling every time he touched the puck. For the last decade, Patrik Elias has been a household name even as our household has moved around town. We haven’t missed a chance to cheer for him, in English or Czech, online or in person. That’s what I bring, and I salute the Devils for bringing real fans into their employee ranks. Supposedly we find out in the next few days, and my money is on Cowbell, although I think Section 232 will miss him if he leaves the neighborhood.

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