In 1994, the New Jersey Devils had called the Garden State home for just over a decade. They played in a building that was no-frills and difficult to get to, and stood among a landscape that was as desolate as the outlook for the team to compete for a piece of the Rangers-dominated fan base in the area.
In the spring of that year the Devils, led by Scott Stevens, John MacLean, Ken Daneyko, and a promising young goaltender named Martin Brodeur, made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals for only the second time on the team's history.
What happened next is well known to even the casual New York area sports fan. The two teams battled and fought, with the series eventually coming down to a deciding seventh game in which Ranger Stephane Matteau scored in double-overtime to beat New Jersey and send New York to the finals.
The Rangers went on to beat the Vancouver Canucks in 7 games.
That series win over the Devils was supposed to clinch once and for all the superiority of the Rangers in the New York metropolitan area. There was even talk of the Devils moving to Nashville due to issues with the Meadowlands Arena in the months following the Rangers victory. But a funny thing happened following the euphoric 1994 season. The Devils time had finally come.
New Jersey won the Stanley Cup the following season. Then won it again five years later. Then won it again three years after that. Suddenly, the red-headed stepchildren of the NHL, the team that Wayne Gretzky once referred to as a "Mickey Mouse operation" had established themselves as one of the premier and winningest organizations in professional sports.
Meanwhile, the Rangers have won exactly zero Stanley Cups since that magical (or nightmarish, depending on the color of your favorite hockey sweater) 1994 season.
In 2007, the Devils finally escaped the Meadowlands, an area more suitable for dumping bodies than enjoying a sporting event, and moved into a gleaming new arena in downtown Newark: the Prudential Center. Still, they continued to get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield on a bad day.
So, why has it been so difficult for the Devils to become respected in the New York area? It's as easy as the "NJ" on their sweaters.
New York is, has always been, and will always be the place that looks down upon New Jersey. Looks down upon anywhere other than New York, if we're being honest. New Jersey's reputation as being full of corrupt politicians, mobsters, miles upon miles of filthy highways, refineries and generic suburbs doesn't help matters, either.
Regardless of their hockey team's futility over the last 72 years (one Stanley Cup), somehow, unbelievably, the fans in New York City still believe the Rangers organization is superior to the Devils in virtually every way. It's maddening, considering that, despite the disdain New Yorkers have for us on this side of the Hudson River, they have tried to steal virtually everything that's good about our state.
They stole the Statue Of Liberty. They stole the New Jersey Nets. They tried to steal Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli and Bon Jovi. The tried to steal The Sopranos. They even want to steal our namesake, the great battleship USS New Jersey, and dock it at Liberty Island.
Yes, New York has disdain for New Jersey, but the difference between now and the spring of 1994 is that an entire generation of fans have grown up since then.
Fans that never existed when New Jersey hockey fans' only choice for a local team was the Rangers or the more distant Islanders. These fans grew up on Devils hockey. They grew up on Scott Stevens crushing opponents, Martin Brodeur making electrifying saves and Ken Daneyko clearing the crease in front of him like a bull.
These are the fans that will pack The Rock for the Eastern Conference Finals, and even make the trip across the river to Madison Square Garden. They're diehards, something the Devils had very little of back in 1994.
They're also something that New York will never be able to steal, although they'll probably try.
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