Don Lever put the puck in the net, celebrated for a moment, and then realized, ‘Wait a minute, this puck represents history.’ When the first Devils’ captain scored the team’s first-ever goal on October 5, 1982 in a 3-3 tie against Pittsburgh, pro hockey in New Jersey had officially arrived. Lever reached into the net, grabbed the puck, and the celebration was on.
The Devils, a team born thanks to the franchise’s move from Colorado to New Jersey in 1982 by the late Dr. John McMullen, had only one loss in their first seven games, and their first-ever victory came over the rival New York Rangers, 3- 2, in the second game of the season. At least for two weeks, there was much to celebrate at newly minted Brendan Byrne Arena.
“That night when we beat the Rangers, you rode the high for a long time, almost into next year just because the Rangers didn’t sweep us,” said ex-Devils’ goalie Glenn “Chico” Resch, now the team’s television color commentator. “The rivalry was built that year.”
For 25 years, the Devils have had many moments just like that first goal from Lever and first win over the Rangers. Moments filled with celebrations, high fives, helmet slapping and Cup raisings. However, they were rare in 1982-83. After captivating the hockey audience for seven games, the Devils went on an 18-game winless streak on their way to finishing fifth in the Patrick Division with a 17-49-14 record. Pittsburgh was last that season with three less points than New Jersey.
“We had some older guys who were getting the last kick of the can, and the spotlight had been turned on brighter than in Colorado, where the lights were flickering and dim for most of the year,” Resch said. “I think we did feel optimistic coming in, and that’s maybe why we played well early on. Then reality set in.”
The Devils scored 230 goals that season, worst in the NHL. The defense allowed 338, which was fifth-worst in the league. Resch didn’t even want to know that he held a 3.98 goals-against average. Go ahead and call it growing pains.
“We tried to build some character individuals, and I think we had a good core,” Resch said. “We didn’t have a bona fide sniper, and until Kenny Daneyko came (in the 1983-84 season) we didn’t have a bona fide tough guy.”
However, a rivalry was born with the Rangers, and the development of young standouts Aaron Broten, Pat Verbeek and Joe Cirella was underway. Broten led the Devils with 55 points in his second full NHL season. Verbeek played only six games and registered two goals and three assists in 1982-83, but it was his first taste of the NHL.
Cirella played in the season-opener that season. Broten went on to play 12 seasons in the NHL, including seven-plus years with the Devils, and registered 189 goals and 329 assists.
Verbeek finished a 20-year career in 2002 with 522 goals and 541 assists. He played parts of seven seasons in New Jersey. Cirella played six full seasons with the Devils, and parts of 13 through the course of his NHL career.
“In general, our teams in the early years were made up of a good group of young players and a nice mix of older players,” Broten said. “I think the organization did the right thing by trying to bring along some young players.” Broten, though, isn’t so sure the older guys such as Lever, Bobby MacMillan, and Resch were thrilled to be part of a rebuilding project. “All I remember is Don Lever, Bobby MacMillan, “Chico” Resch, the guys who had ten years of experience whereas we had one or two years,” he said. “They struggled with the fact that they were on a team that wasn’t doing so well, but they were helping to build something.”
Resch said it didn’t take long to see a hockey fan base growing in New Jersey. Some of those fans who rooted for the rival Rangers or the Islanders were being transformed into Devils’ fans. Even some of those New Jerseyans from down near Philadelphia were happy to have their own team. They’d show up at Brendan Byrne Arena with those old green, red and white home jerseys.
They’d also show up at the old Ice World in Totowa, where the Devils used to practice. Resch said he would go into the lobby with his pads on to get a cup of coffee, and he’d find fans who just wanted to sit and chat with him. Before the Devils took the ice in Totowa, some men’s league players would still be skating around. Resch remembers some of the amateurs asking the Devils if they could skate with them for a while, and the professionals said, ‘Why not?’
“We were a very friendly team except when it came to the W’s,” Resch said. “We didn’t give them too many of those.” However, both Resch and Broten said the Devils weren’t an overnight phenomenon. It still took time, years to gather support. Fans were coming over from Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum and the Spectrum, but it wasn’t by the truckload. One here. Two there. Another three more followed.
Eventually, the Devils had a hard core fan base. It wasn’t until 1987- 88 when the Devils won the Patrick Division Playoff title for the first time that they officially turned the corner. “I don’t think we set any attendance records, but we had our good core group,” Broten said. “The other ones came along after they started winning some games. Everybody was optimistic that we were going to get better.”
“The fans who came were pretty enthusiastic, but I got a sense that there weren’t the grassroots numbers that I thought might jump on the bandwagon early,” added Resch. “Most of the people said they were Ranger, Flyer and Islander fans.” It wasn’t the attendance numbers, and even winning right away, that mattered to this group of Devils. They were just so happy that there was hope filling the franchise thanks to the move from Denver, where things were bleak during the six years the Devils were known as the Colorado Rockies.
“We had kinks, but because of the stability that Dr. McMullen brought, there was always something good around the bend,” Resch said. “It wasn’t where is the road going to end where we fall off the cliff, and in Colorado that’s how you felt. “We were in the New York market, and we had a good amount of coverage. It was just going to be a longer road to respectability than I thought it would be.”
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