Thursday, July 12, 2007


Cloud Nine in 1995

Warrant sang that it was not too far away, and if you can afford a decently used videotape for under $5, then you too can get Heaven. Specifically Heaven: The New Jersey Devils 1994-95 Championship Season.

Given that this is the offseason, now is a good as time as any to take a look back to the past with the help of some now incredibly old merchandise. Just for the fact it's a VHS tape that is 12 years old, it's probably worth getting now before you can't get it anymore. That said, let's take a look at how the Official 1995 Stanley Cup Championship Video stands up from an entertainment and historical perspective.

Heaven begins with a standard opening and titles. Manufactured and marketed by USA Home Entertainment, available only in English with closed captioning, mono-compatible, produced by Glenn Adamo (executive producer), directed and also produced by Kenneth Rosen, narrated by Jim Fagan, and starring your New Jersey Devils. Still of Scott Stevens with a classic expression of triumph on his face holding up the Stanley Cup, title of Heaven, and then we cut to black. And the first thing on the video proper takes Devils fans straight to hell. Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. I should not have to explain why it's horrifying but it's there. The highlights rolling as I try to not to throw up in my mouth (aside: I was successful), followed by some player interviews. Stephane Richer states it haunted him throughout the season, then coach Jacques Lemiare states that you have to look towards next season, and a number of Devils state how tough that loss was (a feathered-haired Scott Stevens, a mulletted Claude Lemieux, and a very young Martin Brodeur).

Cut to the 1995 season and good job on the video completely ignoring the lockout that resulted in an abbreviated regular season. This is a tape about the Devils, not a contract bargaining agreement. The tape then displays the Devils talking about teamwork, Lemaire discussing how the players bought into the system (the "dreaded" neutral zone trap), and Lou himself stating that success comes when all the individuals give their best. Highlights of the Devils doing well adorn the screen, showing us of a time when Bobby Holik was a fourth line center, #23 meant Bruce Driver, Neal Broten and Bobby Carpenter were the top centers, and Martin Brodeur, Sergei Brylin, and Scott Neidermayer were all young players. Heaven then throws us a curve by showing the Devils being scored on, hit hard, and scored on again - the narrator stating the Devils fell to ninth place during the season as injuries took their total. Heaven continues to remind me of pain again with more shots of the Rangers (Mark Messier vs. Bobby Carpenter in the faceoff - gee, no mis-match there) with Jim Fagan stating that big loss to the Rangers was the low point of the season. You know, for a highlight video celebrating a team's success, Heaven isn't afraid to show the Devils' warts.

Neither are the players, they were candid about how the team didn't have a Yzerman or a Lindros or a Federov, the offense had to come from everyone. Then the regular season highlights start properly with some big saves by a young Martin Brodeur and Chris Terreri, goals coming from such luminous scorers such as Neal Broten, Shawn Chambers, and Valeri Zelepukin. Some shots of the Crash Line (Mike Peluso-Bobby Holik-Randy McKay) doing what they do best plus a sweet goal by Randy McKay after fighting through some heavy obstruction. Cue up some Van Halen, some cheesy video special effects, and highlights just keep coming at you until we hit a stop.

Playoffs are now the focus and rightfully so, this is a highlight tape celebrating the Devils' Stanley Cup win. Therefore, the focus should be on the second season - the most grueling 16 wins the Devils would have had to earn back then. Narrator ominously states the Devils would be trying to be the first team to win the Stanley Cup without home-ice advantage in over 28 years. Yep, the Devils were a #5 seed if I recall correctly. If message boards and blogs and such were prevalent then as they are now, the worry, concern, and pessimism would be so thick, you could cut it with a knife. And why not? The first round was the Boston Bruins - starting in the Boston Garden; a team boasting Cam Neely and Adam Oates up front and Ray Bourque to lead the defense. On the other hand, the Bruins could "boast" of Blaine Lacher in net. Sure he had a good season that year but this postseason was a sign of poorer play to come and the Devils put the goal judge to work - netting 5 in game 1. More impressive was Martin Brodeur. Mind you, this was his sophomore season and he was hot all throughout the playoffs - not only earning a shutout in game 1 (the first ever postseason shutout in Devils history) but a second straight shutout. The Devils went onto win the series, holding momentum through the series despite losing game 3 to Boston.

Next up was the Pittsburgh Penguins, featuring a mullet named Jaromir Jagr, guys like Ron Francis and Luc Robitalle, and Ken Wregget. More of the same, the Devils win games on the road against Pittsburgh, drop one or two here, and the Devils persevered despite obstacles in their path (late fluke goals, etc.). This series had one sweet highlight of Scott Stevens taking a slapshot from the neutral zone, racing for the rebound, and putting home the rebound in overtime to win Game 2. A crucial goal, indeed. If I recall correctly, Claude Lemieux made this series his own - shadowing Jagr to prevent him from scoring a ton of goals and scoring quite a few goals himself (I want to say 6 but I'm not sure) in the series. One thing you have to say about the 1995 Devils was not just that they were a defensive hockey team, but the goals came from all over. Some nights it was the defense (Bruce Driver, Shawn Chambers, Neidermayer, etc.), other nights it was players like Stephane Richer and John MacLean, other times it was Neal Broten and Claude Lemieux, and some nights it was seemingly a hodge-podge of Devils putting biscuits in the basket.

Now if you want to get a full understanding of what hockey was like in 1995, this highlight tape does a good job of showing that hockey back then was a lot rougher. The goals weren't as pretty, the goaltenders weren't so dominant - though a lot of the highlights show Brodeur making a lot of tough saves, for a guy in a defensive system, he had a lot of work, and most obviously a lot of hits ranging from clean but hard to questionable to the level of "you got to be kidding me, ref, that's got to be a call!" And the hitting was definitely highlighted in the third playoff series given attention to in Heaven. The Philadelphia Flyers. The Spectrum, the LEGION OF DOOM, and solid goaltending from Ron Hextall. Yes, that Ron Hextall. Hey, the Flyers were really good in 1995 with a very productive first line centered by co-MVP and a healthy Eric Lindros, with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg on the wings. They were the Legion of Doom, guess where Claude Lemieux's assignment was? Yep, right on shadowing LeClair. Not that you would know from the highlights, which were full of late hits, shoving, and some absolute painful looking physical play. They aren't kidding when they say the road to the Stanley Cup is a long and painful one. Heaven shows that while the Devils were beaten hard, they were never intimidated and won games 1 and 2. However, they aren't shy in stating that the Devils rested on their laurels when the series went back to NJ. As you can guess, the Flyers soundly beat the Devils in the next two games. Highlights show even further physical play including one where Craig MacTavish - most famous for being the last player in the NHL to play without a helmet - getting hit onto the boards and then hit again to fall off and hit his head on the ice. Ouch, indeed. As you can guess, the Devils were valiant in defeating the Flyers again and again to take the series in 6 and move onto their first Stanley Cup Finals in franchise history. Lou is happy, then governor Christie Todd Whitman was pleased, and the Devils were elated.

Then we get to the "meat" of the video, the Stanley Cup Finals series. The Detroit Red Wings were the best team in the abbreviated season and the series would start at the Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings haven't won a Cup in over 40 years back then and they were hungry. And the Devils gave it right to them in Game 1, holding the game scoreless after one. Basically, the theme on Heaven was that the Red Wings were just shocked that the New Jersey Devils - yes, THE New Jersey Devils - were hanging with them and giving them one hell of a game. But no one talks much about that Game 1 other than that was the one where Keith Primeau picked up a back injury that would take him out of the game (and the playoffs if I recall correctly). Not when Game 2 had so much more. The Red Wings went up 2-1 in that game forcing the Devils to turn it around from behind. Scott Stevens caught Slava Kozlov cutting across to the middle with his head down and, well, you know what happens then. After the Kozlov destruction, Scott Neidermayer cemented his spot in Devils history by going end-to-end, firing a puck off the boards, and then put home his own rebound for the equalizer.

As sweet as that goal was, it did not win the Devils the game, though you could argue that was the turning point of the entire series. Heaven really shines by focusing on the game winner. After Paul Coffey blocked a Shawn Chambers shot, he was down leaving Jim Dowd to get wide open in the slot. As you can probably figure out, a loose puck after a shot got to Dowd who put it home and gave the Devils the win (as sealed by a Richer empty net goal). Heaven then cuts to Brick Township and shows Dowd's dad and his brothers talking about how Jim was a winner and how great it was that he got a game winning goal in the Stanley Cup finals. Heaven really could have used more player interviews or words from others describing how things were when events occurred - they only did that sort of thing during the Finals, such as a short segment about the Devils' bus driver Heinz (who notes that Claude Lemieux complains the most on the bus), where the Red Wings fans get their octopi (and how much the Devils hate how they smell), and fan shots before Game 3 and 4. Good to mix things up, but I wanted more of it for some of the other series.

And so we go to Games 3 and 4 at the Brendan Byrne Arena (hey, it was 1995). A young fan states that if somehow - somehow - Detroit can get past Stevens and Neidermayer and Daneyko they have to deal with the best ever goaltender in the NHL, Brodeur. At that point it would not be "maybe possible, but impossible." A disputable claim back then about Brodeur, but quite defensible now. In any case, the fans for Game 3 came with body/face paint, pitchforks, pom-poms, and all kinds of bad haircuts and got to see a great game. The Devils put 5 up on Detroit, chasing Mike Vernon (ASIDE: Yes, the road to the Cup had the Devils face Blaine Lacher, Ken Wregget, Ron Hextall, and Mike Vernon as opposing starters. I'm not making this up.) and even getting one on back-up Chris Osgood. While the end score was 5-2, Scotty Bowman stated in the post-game press conference that it was the most humiliating win he ever had as a coach. Good times.

The final game was one to remember, and Heaven did not disappoint with the fan segments. A little kid stating he's been waiting his whole life for the Devils to win the Cup was cute. A guy had a sweet Devils logo shaved into the back of his head. Various brooms swept in front of Red Wings fans was funny, but not as funny as a face-painted Devils fan cutting into a shot of a Red Wings fan talking to a camera and stating "The Devils are going to RULE, man" before fleeing. It's high comedy, I can't do the delivery justice. Anyway, it gets better for Devils fans when the narrator stating that the Red Wings played their best hockey all series in the first period of Game 4. And all they had to show for it was a 2-2 tie. The Red Wings storming off the ice at the intermission was classic. The rest of the game was elementary; the Devils broke through Vernon, and history was made. Claude Lemieux gets the Conn Smythe, Scott Stevens gets to raise Lord Stanley's Cup, some shots of the locker room party (Daneyko had hair back then, things were really that different then), credits roll as we see more footage of the party, some of the Stanley Cup parade in the parking lot at the Meadowlands, and as a final set of shots we see the Devils get congratulated by then President Bill Clinton with some Devils talking about how cool it was to keep being congratulated. And that concludes the sub-60 minute video that is Heaven.

If you want to visit and/or remember the days of the 1995 Devils, Heaven is not a bad video. It's a lot of highlights of each playoff game and for someone like me who doesn't remember 1995 so clearly - in my defense, I was 12 then - it's a good reminder of how the Devils carried on. You get an idea how different the Devils were back then and how different the game of hockey was over a decade ago. Most importantly, you get an understanding of what the Devils had to go through to win that Stanley Cup - and they did it all as a team, as a cohesive unit. You'll feel a lot of pride of being a Devils fan by the end of it, for sure. I do have some criticisms: the regular season is sort of dashed over with a set of highlights with some cheesy effects - I wanted more information about how things went, not just a loss to the Rangers and being out of the playoffs. Furthermore, it's not a long video since it's run time is less than an hour, and the opening sucks really hard. However, if you can get a decent copy of Heaven for cheap, I highly recommend you do so before you can't find it anymore.


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