Since it is the off-season and there has not been a lot of major news recently outside of the Stanley Cup Finals between Anaheim and Ottawa, now is a good a time as any to engage in some navel-gazing and answer an important question:
Why be a fan of the New Jersey Devils?
Earlier this year, I wrote a rambling essay as to explain why I despise the New York Rangers.
However, that is only disliking a team. I am not a fan of the Devils because I really don't like the Rangers. Anyone can easily not like the Rangers and hope they fail from season to season without being a Devils fan. You don't even need to like hockey to hate on the Rangers. Likewise, hating all 29 other teams does not necessarily mean one is a Devils supporter. Therefore, I think it's not a bad question to answer - it requires more than just "I want the rivals of the Rangers/Flyers/Islanders/etc. to win."
Now, before getting into matters, I think it's important to consider why anyone would be a fan of any sports team. There are many reasons that come to mind. Location is one such reason. Some people who like a sport may naturally gravitate towards the team from their hometown or the local sports squad. Another reason could be that the team you are a fan of was a part of the first event of that sport (e.g. first hockey game, first baseball game, etc.) and as a result you became a fan as time went on. A third reason could be influence from your family, friends, co-workers, significant others, etc. How a particular team plays or their success may be so attractive that their play or success has literally won your support over. You could simply support a team because of more obvious facts such as your favorite player plays (or played) for them. When I was younger, sometimes the color of the uniform and the logo spurred the initial interest that led to later fan-dom. These are just a multitude of reasons of why anyone would be a fan of a sports team; and I'm confident there are many more that I have missed.
Getting back on track, since this is a personal question, some background is required. I have been a fan of the New Jersey Devils since the 1993-1994 season, when I was about 10 years old or so. It's when I became much more aware of hockey in general (roller hockey and all that in the streets) in addition to the New Jersey Devils in the NHL. I saw the rise of Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens leading a defensive squad in scoring, and the incredibly heart-breaking 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. Since then, I've followed the Devils with a strong interest as the Devils answered their critics with a Stanley Cup in 1995 and became contenders for nearly every season thereafter. Basically, that season was the reason I became a big hockey fan and a Devils fan to begin with.
It can be said that my interest really didn't fade that much; which is quite interesting since I'm now 24. Generally, as one grows older, they tend to find new interests, new hobbies, new friends, and so on and so forth. I realized this today while cleaning out some of my room; coming across across some old CDs, among other things. Years back, I would listen to a lot of (really bad) punk and hardcore music; but clearly I did not (and still really don't) care much for the "sounds" of Slapshot (Aside: How can you name your band that, have a logo that is just like the Bruins logo, and have no songs about hockey whatsoever? Seriously, what were you thinking, Slapshot?). Naturally I threw them away - they served no use to me. I imagine it's the same for a lot of people - you don't necessarily listen to the same things, have the same friends, or have the same interests now that you did when you were 19 or 20 or even last year. Therefore, I think this sort of element should be considered along with the initial question. Yes, I remember why I became a Devils fan in the first place; but why am I still a Devils fan?
After some additional thought, the answer to this question and the initial one is one and the same: it all has to do with what the New Jersey Devils stand for. They are not just one of the two major sports teams in this area that has New Jersey in their name; not just the only one to remain after the Nets jump to Brooklyn. There is some meaning in the New Jersey location, Doc Emerick mentions this in the 25th Anniversary commercial that constantly played during Devils telecasts on Fox Sports New York. However, I think it is deeper than than just putting a NJ on the front of the jersey in that sweet design. In my opinion there are three characteristics (and I think you may know where I'm going with this) about the New Jersey Devils which are not just reasons as to why they are successful but why am I still a fan and will likely remain a fan.
First and foremost, the Devils make discipline a priority. They generally are one of the league's least penalized teams, and while that is definitely an advantage to stay out of the penalty box, discipline means more than that in the Devils organization. It's about adhering to a team-first style of play that plays to their strengths. The Devils are not a run-and-gun squad that rolls four lines of offense. They know defense is their strong point, they know they have Martin Brodeur in net, and they know they are going to stick with winning with defensive hockey and creating turnovers. Unless there is a massive personnel change in all areas of the organization, this will not change. Sometimes it may sound daft to enforce players to only have facial hair for the playoffs or to constantly perform line matching with the opposition, however all of these things combine to result in a team that is relatively happy and quite successful in the last 13 years or so. Discipline matters and those who do not fit that mold (e.g. Mike Danton) or do not want to be in it (e.g. Petr Sykora) are gone. Those who do are contributors to the Devils' success (e.g. Jamie Langenbrunner, etc.). Discipline is clearly inherent in the Devils' style of play and it seems to me so ingrained as to who the Devils are that changing it would be absolute folly.
Second is the fact that they bothered with defensive hockey to begin with. The common lament after the 1995 Stanley Cup win was the fact that the system (the Devils) beat a more talented team (the Detroit Red Wings). Naturally, many other teams found that the neutral zone trap Jacques Lemaire initially implemented with the Devils in the 1993-1994 was a pretty good system. I shouldn't have to say that the Devils used that system better than most other teams - due in part of their high level of discipline. Many have complained that the Devils made hockey boring, which just blows my mind - as if hockey could be boring. In any case, despite the criticisms both within and outside of the hockey realm, the Devils did not change their defensive-first ways. The whole league was locked out for a season, new rules were implemented that led to faster and more high-scoring hockey, and yet the Devils were still a top team generally playing the same way they had before the lock out. The Devils truly do not care what others think, they go on the ice to play their style of hockey and are generally successful as a result. Definitely admirable and a testament as to how well the Devils understand what they can and can not do.
Third and lastly is the constant improving of the team. The Devils traditionally do not look for big names in free agency or in trades (Doug Gilmour excluded), but they do not stick with a roster for long. As I have mentioned many times in response to a dumb article by Mark Everson of the New York Post
, Lou Lamoriello and the Devils organization continually seeks to improve themselves. Some teams find it best to be terrible for awhile, stockpile high draft picks, select prospects with high upsides, and hope they can reach those upsides and improve the team in the long-term. The Devils have not done that; last selecting in the top 10 back in 1991 (and they got that #3 pick in a trade, if I recall correctly) and the team last "earned" such a high spot throughout the whole draft back in 1989. The Devils are content on giving the undrafted players a shot (e.g. John Madden, Brian Rafalski), developing lower draft picks into solid players (e.g. Paul Martin, Brian Gionta), trading for talent at the trade deadline to help the team try and win the Stanley Cup (e.g. Arnott for Langenbrunner sticks out in my mind) and letting players who demand a lot of money walk. Bobby Holik, the big shutdown center at the time, left for NY for $9 million per year; yet the Devils did not panic, they filled that slot with John Madden who has been there since. Scott Neidermayer leaving the Devils for free agency hurt the team, but it did not doom the Devils as they have won the Atlantic Division in the first two seasons since his departure. Some of the signings and trades have failed (e.g. Andreas Salomonsson, Vladimir Malakhov, etc.), sure; but the Devils did not and will not just settle with just any roster. They will likely need to reload this season and just like every year so far, they will address where they need help and will likely contended for a third straight division title (among other things).
It is these three qualities that make me still proud to call myself a Devils fan: their discipline, their adherence to their style of play, and their attempts to continually improve themselves. The Devils clearly are sure of who they are and how they want to succeed in the NHL. With 3 Stanley Cups in a 9 year span to go with multiple Atlantic Division titles, the Devils have been successful with their ideas and their philosophy. Simply admirable traits and I imagine all fans of all teams would want these three aspects (The NY Giants could definitely use the discipline, for example).
In short, it is what the Devils stand for that continually reminds me that there is a lot to be proud of in being a Devils fan. Their successes are direct examples of it, but understanding some of the crucial aspects in how they have achieved their successes so far is also worthy of respect and a source of pride for fans. Especially in knowing the Devils seemingly have no plans of changing these three core characteristics. Therefore, it is just as easy for me to be a fan of the Devils now and likely in the future. How I became a fan was simple enough; the 1993-1994 season saw the Devils grow into contenders with their style of play. The Devils continuing to succeed based on these three characteristics, in my opinion, is what keeps me as a fan.
This was quite a long, rambling essay as to why I'm a fan of the Devils. I must emphasize that I don't think I'm any more of a fan than anyone else nor that my reasons are better than your own. For all I know, I thought way too hard about something that should have been more instinct than anything else. In any case, I'd like to know why you are a Devils fan; I'm genuinely interested in the all kinds of reasons you support the best sports team in New Jersey.