Why I Stopped Caring About My Favorite Team
My dad used to tell me that as you get older you just don't care as much as you did as a kid. He was right.
Photo by Mike Blake-Reuters
Five AM after your junior prom is not the time to fast forward through a VHS cassette your dad left out for you. This is a time for throwing up after a night of heavy alcohol consumption; for apologizing to your girlfriend for the premature ejaculation that comes with losing one's virginity; for bragging to your buddies about how you lost your virginity and how good you were at the sex, or for gathering somewhere with friends you've known since kindergarten to watch the sunrise with the knowledge that you are about to begin the process of growing apart.
Me? I wanted to see Stephane Matteau's winner. I had to. The New Jersey Devils were the love of my life and this was me standing in the morgue, waiting for the medical examiner to remove the sheet so I could identify the body. The DJ at the prom gave us the news hours ago but I had yet to reach the acceptance stage. I spent most of the night in the beat-the-walls-with-glow-necklaces-while-wearing-a-rented-tuxedo stage.
The New York Rangers, the team and thing I hated most in the world, had ruined my prom night and I had to see it for myself. I spent the morning debating whether to skip the prom to watch Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference final because beating the Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup was way more important to me than any rite of passage that included some premature ejaculation.
Of course, the Devils lost. Mike Richter physically attacked an official after Valeri Zelepukin tied the game in the dying seconds and Bernie Nicholls just missed winning it immediately prior to Matteau's history-making failed wraparound, but that's the pissing and moaning of someone else. It's not me.
If Twitter existed in 1994, my handle would've been @MessierSucks and my tweets would have been nothing but inflammatory messages for members of the Rangers organization.
Everyone tells you that as you get older, the emotional attachments of your youth begin to fade. Sure, you know that some of those pals with whom you watched the sun rise would become nothing more than people who post uninteresting things about their kids and political leanings to Facebook, but your favourite sports teams? Why would that love ever dissipate? How could a sports team become nothing more than your Facebook friend?
I bought a corsage for my prom date at Vi's Florist, a tiny shop in my hometown of Harrison, New Jersey. It's also where my dad would get our Devils tickets. The owner was a season-ticket holder who'd sell a bunch of them. My dad would usually pick up four or six before the season.
Some of my favourite memories are at the Continental Airlines Arena (nee: Brendan Byrne Arena). The first playoff game I ever saw in person was Game 4 of the second round against the Penguins in 1995. Neal Broten won it in overtime down at our end of the ice. I remember jumping and seeing my dad running for the parking lot before I ever landed.
I also participated in Score-O, this thing where four fans who found a player's autograph in that night's game program won a chance to shoot two pucks from center ice into a tiny opening in the net. I got to do it four times and went 0-for-8. My dad learned a trick, that since the building was half-empty all the time and the programs went unsold, you could go downstairs and sign up to be an alternate. Only once did I get an autograph and it was Scott Pellerin. On that night, one of my shots from center ice resulted in the goal light illuminating and fans behind the net raising their arms.
I was never as sad as I was when some kid inside the Devils mascot costume skated to the crease, looked at the puck and waved it off. No goal. The puck came to rest on the line. The cheers of a rare sellout crowd instantly turned to boos, as was tradition during this event.
To this date, outside of his family, no one loves Scott Pellerin more than me.
I had a lot of great nights at Devils games with my dad during my middle school and high school years. I wore my Stephane Richer jersey to every game, even as it became more and more ill-fitting as I continued to grow into the gangly man I am today. I lived and died with meaningless regular-season games the way you do when you're 15 and could not be consoled after playoff eliminations. I was a fan.
When you live in a Rutgers dormitory, SportsChannel isn't an option. There's a TV in the common room, sure, but convincing people to turn off the Yankees game to watch Devils-Sharks is just about impossible, especially when space was just beginning to fill up on the Yankees bandwagon in 1995. Plus, you tend to have a social life in college, and parties that feature free beer and girls tend to become a bit more interesting than what Petr Sykora is doing against the Maple Leafs on a Thursday night.
I was still a fan, to be sure, but now I was a less engaged one. Even after moving off campus, trying to sell housemates on why they should chip in money for a cable channel that shows Devils games and taped delayed horse racing from the Meadowlands is a futile endeavor.
In four years, I watched fewer games on TV and rarely made the 45-minute drive from Piscataway to East Rutherford. My most notable Devils-related college memory was tagging along with a friend to a sporting goods store in Manhattan because long-time Devil Bruce Driver was signing autographs in his new capacity as Rangers defenceman, as he had just joined the team that lived to bring me pain.
Still, I waited in line with Rangers fans, holding my Devils hat. When I got to the front of the line, he smiled and signed it with his old number, 23, as opposed to the number he'd wear with what I considered the most vile team in sports, 33. It felt like I had infiltrated enemy territory to rescue a kidnapped spy and he said, "Don't worry, I'm fine, but thanks for braving the George Washington Bridge to make sure I was still OK."
I worked nights and weekends at a newspaper in 2003. For those of you not in the newspaper business, if you were an editor on a sports desk, you generally had terrible days off, like Tuesday and Wednesday, and you wouldn't get done with a shift until 2 AM. My youth slipped away one deadline after another.
Still, the Devils were always there. When they won the Stanley Cup in 2000, I was in an Atlantic City casino. I had a clear plastic cup full of vodka when Patrik Elias hit Jason Arnott for the Cup-winning OT goal, and like any totally-not-sober person, I pretended to skate around the casino floor and drank the vodka from what I told people was the Stanley Cup.
In 2003, I hated life. Hated the hours, hated the nights off. Now the Devils were more like a kid I'd see on weekends after a divorce. You work at night, you don't watch sports at night. You read wire game stories and check box scores.
Late on this particular night off, hours after a Devils loss, I got a call from a friend.
"Are you home?"
"Yeah, I'm just sitting here."
"Come to Applebee's on Route 3 in Clifton."
"Now? It's 11:30."
"I'm not telling you why. Just come and I promise it will be worth it."
My friend preyed on my desperation to do anything fun on a mid-week night off. I thought about who could be there—is it a girl? Do I have to put on pants for this? I decided to make the 10-minute drive from Lyndhurst to Clifton. As I entered, I knew right away why I was called there.
Sitting at the bar were three members of the 2002-03 Devils—Jim McKenzie, John Madden and Martin Brodeur. Of course, Brodeur was the reason I got the call. I loved Brodeur. I idolized him, in fact. I made it my mission as a rec league goaltender to learn how to shoot the puck left-handed despite my innate right-handedness because of Brodeur. My friend made a good choice.
That night, about five minutes up the road, the Devils lost to the Thrashers, 3-2. It was tough to say what Brodeur was most pissed off about—the loss or the fact that the Devils didn't make a significant move at the deadline. There sat my friend and I in a nearby booth as Brodeur groused at the bar and we fanboyed like no fanboy has ever fanboyed.
I was a fan reborn.
Hours later, with this Applebee's almost entirely empty, my friend fumbled through his bag and took out a pen. He began writing on a piece of paper. What was my friend so hurriedly writing?
All night, Brodeur was wheeling the very attractive Applebee's bartender, who seemed to be having none of it. That's when I realized what was happening—Brodeur was giving her his number and my friend was jotting it down. Here we were, two idiot fans who just stumbled upon our favourite player's phone number.
Of course, the Devils would go on to win the Stanley Cup. Between March and June, we probably called Brodeur's number a half-dozen times. It always went to voicemail, which was recorded in both French and English. Nothing really became of it. We never left messages. He never answered our calls.
At least, not until the night they won the Stanley Cup.
A different friend and myself paid $260 per ticket to watch the Devils beat the Ducks in Game 7. Afterward, we went to a nearby bar and had beers with the Devils radio announcer. After that, it was to the Lyndhurst diner for some pancakes and hash browns to finish the night off.
"Hey, do you still have Brodeur's phone number?"
"Have you called him tonight?"
"Call him. Say congrats."
So I did. Why not make an inebriated, late-night phone call to my teenage hero?
I dialed. It rang and rang and then...
"Hey, it's Dave."
"I'm just calling to say congratulations."
"OK, I'll let you get back to your party."
"OK, bye, Dave!"
"See ya, Marty!"
And that was it. On the night my favourite sports team won a championship, I drunkenly spoke to my favourite player, who was also drunk and sounded like he was chomping a cigar.
That's perhaps my final memory of being a Devils fan.
Before the start of the 2009-10 season, my editor sat me down in his office. "We want you to cover all the Rangers home games this season," he said.
I had started at the NHL as a copy editor about seven months prior, yet somehow became a full-time writer as well. I worked a handful of games during the 2009 playoffs and, despite my mediocre talents, was asked to be the Rangers writer for the league web site. In any other situation, this would have been difficult for super-duper-Devils-fan Dave to write objectively about the Rangers. This would be like asking a vegetarian to become a beef-only food critic, the only difference being that there was never a calendar year in which beef went unavailable to the world.
The 2004-05 lockout just about ended me as a fan. I have no real memories of the Devils or hockey in general between 2005–2009. I watched, sure, but it wasn't the same. There was no living and dying with the Devils. They were still good, and maybe I cared a little, but they were officially my Facebook friend.
I did this interview with Puck Daddy in August 2011 where I said about being a Devils fan, "Am I still one? Sure, I guess." Then I talked about feeling nothing about what should've been a soul-crushing playoff defeat, so maybe I really wasn't. I'm still smarting over a loss by the New York Giants to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, yet two goals in 80 seconds in 2009 and a 2012 loss in the Cup Final may as well have happened to anyone else. Deep down, maybe I didn't want to admit something that shaped my identity wasn't part of me anymore.
Couple that existing feeling with the desire to be objective, and that was that. The last thing I ever wanted to be was one of those hockey writers that names his dog after a player he covers or someone who takes the knives out and guts a player because he scored some goals against my favorite team. Some people lose their fandom because of work and kids; I lost mine because of a year-long lockout and my own self-inflicted eradication of it.
It also becomes odd to hate people you get to know on a personal level. There were times when I'd wish a piano would fall on Mark Messier's stupid face, yet when Marc Staal took a slap shot in the eye a few years ago, I'd pester Rangers PR people to see how he was doing—not because I wanted a story but because a likable fellow might be blind in one eye for the rest of his life and it was unsettling.
I was never more aware of my dead Devils fandom than during the 2012 Stanley Cup Final between the Kings and New Jersey. Entering the Final, I had worked about 70 games that season. The Kings were up 3-0 in the series. The Devils won Game 4 to send it back to New Jersey. There I sat in the press box in Newark for Game 5, watching the clock wind down on a Devils win that would send the series back to Los Angeles for Game 6. And I was miserable.
That premature ejaculator you read about earlier would've been downright giddy. "Holy cow. If we win Game 6, then we have Game 7 at home where anything can happen. We could make history!"
The current me had different thoughts. "So instead of going home and sleeping in my own bed, I have to take a cab to a hotel airport near JFK, sleep for two hours, then fly six hours to Los Angeles to be there in time to talk to Henrik Tallinder about his blood clots. Someone kill me."
Ten years earlier, I despised Messier and loved Brodeur. Now I make occasional small talk in press boxes with Messier, who is a very nice man, and spent years in locker rooms yawning while Brodeur made excuses for his poor play.
The Devils became nothing more than an old jacket in the back of my closet that I donated to Goodwill. You now literally have to pay me to get me to one of their games.
It was November 1997 when the Atlanta Braves signed Andres Galarraga to a massive contract. This was significant because my dad grew up a huge Braves fan and this was, seemingly, exciting news. When you're in your late-teens and growing apart from your parents, sometimes you can fish for anything to talk about with your dad. Of course, we had sports, so I mentioned the Galarraga signing and how great it was during one of my rides down to Rutgers.
Between exits 13 and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike, he lectured me on the fact players make too much money (Galarraga's deal was for $24.75 million over three years) and that as you get older, you just don't care as much as you did as a kid. Yeah, he'd watch the games, but it wasn't the same.
And this was a Braves team at the time that won 100 games a year.
"That'll never be me," I thought to myself as he rambled on about Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron.