It Happened in Jersey: Hockey
Knights of the Living Dead
The 1973–74 season marked the sophomore year for the World Hockey Association, the rag-tag rival to the NHL. Year One had been a disaster for the New York Raiders, whose owners walked away from the club at midseason, forcing the league to assume control of the team. The club took the ice the following year with a new owner (Ralph Brent) and a new name (Golden Blades). Brent actually made the players wear white skates with golden blades.
Twenty games into the 1973–74 campaign, however, Brent gave up on the Blades. The WHA took control again and moved the team out of Madison Square Garden, which had been charging astronomical rent…to Cherry Hill! Player-coach Harry Howell, a star defenseman for the Rangers in the 1950s and 1960s, made the players paint their skates black and the team was renamed the Knights. Howell didn’t have to worry about the uniforms—the Garden confiscated them when the team broke its lease. They took the old Raiders uniforms out of mothballs and sewed a new logo on the fronts.
The minor-league team that had previously called the Cherry Hill Arena home had gone out of business the previous spring. They were the New Jersey Devils of the Eastern League. The rink was famous for its slight north-south slope. This gave the team an advantage, because they were able to skate downhill for two periods and only uphill for one. Another unusual feature was a total lack of plexiglass protection for the crowd. There was chicken wire in the corners and behind the goals and nothing above the boards between the blue lines.
There was plenty of talent on the New Jersey Knights. Center Andre Lacroix led the WHA with 80 assists and also led the club with 31 goals. Winger Wayne Rovers netted 30 and would go on to become one of the WHA’s better goal-scorers. Kevin Morrison, a rookie defenseman, was the Knights’ enforcer. He would go on to play in two WHA All-Star Games. Norm Ferguson was on the roster—in 1969, he was runner-up to Danny Grant for the Calder Trophy. Howell, age 41, contributed 3 goals and 23 assists.
The Knights played winning hockey until the final two weeks, going 26–24–2 as New Jersey’s WHA representative before dropping their final six games. After the season, the team was purchased by a third ownership group and became the San Diego Mariners. Ray Kroc eventually bought the team, and then sold it to a group that wanted to establish big-league hockey in Florida. That deal fell through and the Raiders-Blades-Knights-Mariners franchise blipped out of existence in 1978.
During Martin Brodeur’s 20-plus years between the pipes in New Jersey, the Devils counted on him to win at least a game or two by himself in every playoff series. During the 2000 postseason, they finally gave Marty the night off. Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals saw Brodeur & Co. take the ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs. New Jersey held a 3 games to 2 lead over the Leafs. Both teams won 45 times during the regular season, but because Toronto won the Northern Division and the Devils finished two points behind the Flyers in the Atlantic, the Leafs got Game 7 in their arena. Needless to say, the Devils aimed to end the series in Jersey.
The fans had barely settled into their seats when the Devils lit the lamp. They won the opening faceoff and Jason Arnott dumped the puck into the Toronto zone. Patrik Elias chased it down and whipped a pass back to Arnott in the slot. The Leafs blocked the pass but Elias regained control and sent it back into the crease—where Petr Sykora slapped it past goalie Curtis Joseph. Only 18 seconds had elapsed and the home team had a 1–0 advantage.
New Jersey’s #1 line struck again in the opening minute of the second period. This time Sykora initiated the scoring chance. He scooped up the puck behind the Toronto net and then slid a pass to Arnott, who slapped it past Cujo for a 2–0 lead. John Madden made it 3–0 in the waning minutes of the final period with an open-net goal.
Another playoff shutout for Brodeur, right? Well, yes. But this one was a little different. Brodeur faced a grand total of six shot in 60 minutes—by far the lowest number of shots on goal allowed by the Devils in a postseason contest. It was also the lowest in modern history. New Jersey’s defensive duos—Kevin Stephens & Scott Niedermayer, Colin White & Brian Rafalski and Vladimir Malakhov and Ken Daneyko—were truly dynamic on this night. Time and again they tied up top scorers Steve Thomas, Mats Sundin and Jonas Hoglund. Sergei Berezin racked up half the team’s shots, being turned back by Brodeur three times.
In the Eastern Conference Finals against Philadelphia, the Devils dropped 3 of the first 4 games, but recovered to win the series and earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. The defense was spectacular again, holding the Dallas Stars to 8 goals in 6 games as they won the championship 4 games to 2. Stephens was honored with the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP.
What if they held a hockey game and nobody came? The Devils almost answered this question in 1987. On January 22, a blizzard dumped 20 inches of snow in Northern New Jersey clogging virtually every major road with traffic and disabled vehicles. Because the Devils’ opponents that night, the Calgary Flames, were already in the building, they decided it was safer to go ahead and play they game rather than leave the Byrne Arena.
The only problem was that the Devils could not reach the building. Five players—Ken Daneyko, Pat Verbeek, Ken Daneyko, John MacLean and Kirk Muller—carpooled. They left Daneyko’s house at 3:00 p.m. and didn’t get to the dressing room until 9:00. Peter McNab abandoned his car and walked the final two miles. The officials were also late. The game finally started around 9:30.
The Flames, meanwhile, had warmed up three times. Nick Fotiu amused himself by trying to shoot pucks to the few fans that managed to make it to arena. Eventually, the head count was 334 out of 11,247 tickets sold. They cheered loudly throughout a high-scoring game the Devils won 7–5.
Linesman Dan McCourt remembers how strange it was to work the game: “We had the officials, we had the players, but we've got no fans. Every time you yelled 'offside' or 'icing,' it just echoed throughout the building.”
During the game, a team official worked his way through the stands, taking down names and addresses. In January, the fans received tickets to another game as well as special “Club 334” tee-shirts and pins that commemorated the smallest crowd in NHL history. Twenty years later, the Devils held a reunion for the 334 Club and 150 people showed.