Maybe if you look down at the Prudential Center ice you can still see them, tapping their sticks next to the scarred and scratched Devils logo. Maybe you can still see captain Scott Stevens, lifting the heavy Stanley Cup past his weathered playoff beard. Maybe you can see a younger Martin Brodeur, still with playoff-worn goalie pads, squished into the team picture. Maybe you can even see Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko and a young Brian Rolston, Sergei Brylin and John Madden.
Those are my ghost memories because I never saw that.
I never saw Scott Stevens bring the Cup to New Jersey for the first time. I never saw Jason Arnott’s Stanley Cup winning goal in 2000. I never saw the Devils erase a 3-1 deficit against the Flyers or Stevens’ thundering hit on Eric Lindros. I never saw Devils fans boo J.S. Giguere after the Anaheim goalkeeper won Conn Smythe after New Jersey won its third championship in 2003. I never even saw Stevens play, or Mr. Devil Daneyko. And the closest I cam to seeing Scott Niedermayer live was when the Devils retired his No. 27 for good.
When the Devils won their first Stanley Cup I was a four-year-old child, still living in Massachusetts. When I moved to the Garden State in 1996, I knew nothing of hockey — instilled with only football love from my Browns fan parents. I rebelled against New Jersey, looking at the state like an outsider. I never adopted hockey and continued to question the move, wishing I could go home to Massachusetts. This was my routine for 10 years — until 2006.
That’s why I missed the franchise’s greatest moments. I missed everything fans reminisce about, from iconic images like Ken Daneyko’s jersey retirement ceremony to fans chanting “Scotty, Scotty, Scotty” as the Devils pulled No. 4 into the rafters.
But I still love the Devils. Ever since I started watching them in 2006, by some stroke of random luck, I haven’t been able to imagine life without the red-and-black team. And it’s been hard watching them struggle since then, still waiting for a championship because I never saw one of the three titles they won in my lifetime.
When I think of the Devils and my playoff memories all I see is Carolina in 2009. I see struggles against Ottawa in 2007 and the Rangers in 2008. I see a pathetic effort against the Flyers in 2010. I still see Zach Parise chipping his skates into the ice, leaving for the locker room in tears. I still see future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur swiping his hand at his face to mask the tears. I still see Patrik Elias speaking to the MSG-Plus crew for a postgame interview, trying to keep from crying. I remember Brian Gionta doing the same, desperately trying not to cry since the small forward knew the game he just played was his last as a Devil.
All from playoff losses. All sadness, no celebration.
Until this year.
When the Devils faced the Panthers I saw a dream, a wish. A desire to see the Devils in a home playoff game, something I’ve wanted since I was denied a train ride to the Prudential Center for Game 7 against the Hurricanes in 2009. I thought the Devils had a chance against Florida, but I watched those thoughts fade as the Panthers took a 3-2 lead over the Devils. And I remember, from my couch in BU’s apartments in Australia, Travis Zajac, my favorite Devil scoring in overtime of Game 6. And I remember squishing my eyes closed and listening to Matt Loughlin’s call of rookie Adam Henrique’s overtime, game-winning and series-winning goal in Game 7.
And now? Now I’m on the verge of attending a Stanley Cup Finals game at the Prudential Center on Wednesday night. Add that to my first playoff game when the Devils hosted the Flyers in Game 4 just days after my return home and two spectacular overtime, series-winning goals from Henrique.
I’ve been eerily close to tears since Henrique slipped the puck past a distracted Henrik Lundqvist to send the Devils to their first Stanley Cup Finals since they last won it all. For the first time since I became a fan.
I look down from my bed, where there are three Devils pucks laid out on the floor. Right above my bed, tacked into the ceiling, is a Devils 2003 championship poster. Behind me is a Devils banner, squished between Red Sox and Patriots pictures. In front of me there’s a poster of Scott Stevens, hanging next to one of Bruins legends Cam Neely and Ray Bourque. Not far from that is a Jay Pandolfo-used hockey stick, while on right there’s autographed picture of Travis Zajac and Zach Parise, still in its cardboard casing, waiting to be framed. Stuck to the wall above that is a 2012 Red Alert rally towel and resting on my fushia carpet is a 25-year anniversary book on the history of the Devils.
I’ve flipped through that book, staring at pictures of Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur. I’ve chased after those memories for so long that it’s weird, imagining these newer Devils creating memories like those. I’ve seen pictures of Stevens raising the Cup and ever since Henrique’s overtime goal on Friday I can’t help but picture captain Zach Parise lifting Lord Stanley too.
I’ve waited to see the Devils win for so long, convinced they wouldn’t come close for another few years. So on the eve of the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s hard to fathom what winning would actually be like. It’s really quite weird.