The statement will never be forgotten by the organization and its fans, and unfortunately it defines the Devils of 1983- 84, year two of this 25-year old franchise. Given by Wayne Gretzky, arguably the game’s all-time greatest player, the Devils were referred to as a “Mickey Mouse organization” after Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers downed them, 13-4, in Edmonton on November 19, 1983.
“Well, it’s time they got their act together. They’re ruining the whole league,” is what Gretzky actually said. “They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on the ice.” “I know the team was not happy with his comments, to be frank,” former Devil Aaron Broten recently said. “I know there was a general feeling around the organization that they weren’t happy with the comment, and that’s being politically correct.”
Still, at this point in their second season, the Devils were 2-18 en-route to a 2-20 start. They finished the season 17-56-7, still the worst single-season record in franchise history. Things were looking bleak, because as Broten said, “the honeymoon year was over. “The first year you’re around you’ll get some leeway because it’s a new environment and everybody has to get used to the conditions,” Broten added. “The second year it’s like, ‘Alright, now you’re here and used to it, let’s see you get better.’ There were more expectations.”
Despite taking a step backward and losing seven more games in their second year than their first, the Devils of that generation felt as if they were improving.
“We were maturing, and we knew that because we watched what the Islanders were doing,” said ex-Devil Pat Verbeek, who was a rookie in 1983-84. “We kept getting better. The one thing about that is we still expected to win every night. We’d lose games, and sometimes we just couldn’t take it. It was part of the maturation process.”
Oh boy, did this team have to mature. The Devils, as Verbeek said, had no inbetween players in 1983-84. They were either seasoned veterans or fresh-faced junior players. Mel Bridgman (11th NHL season), Don Lever (14th), Bob MacMillan (12th), Phil Russell (13th), Dave Lewis (12th) and Chico Resch (12th) were all contributors, but all in or nearing the twilight of their careers. However, youngsters such as Verbeek (19 years old), Ken Daneyko (19), John MacLean (19), Joe Cirella (20), Paul Gagne (21), Bruce Driver (21), Jan Ludvig (22), and Broten (23) were just starting to dull their blades on NHL ice.
“To this day, I still see Phil Russell and Mel Bridgman, and those guys don’t understand the influence they had on me,” said Verbeek, now a scout for the Detroit Red Wings. “Those guys took me, Kirk (Muller), Mac (John MacLean), Cirella, and they showed us how to become good pros.”
The mixture, though, was toxic in the beginning of the 1983-84 season. After 20 games and just two wins, coach Bill MacMillan became the franchise’s first coaching casualty. On November 22, 1983, MacMillan was replaced by Tom McVie, who led the Devils to a 15-38-7 record to close the season.
“It was getting better,” Verbeek said. “Confidence is a tough thing. Your entire morale is the toughest thing, and we tried to get back our morale and pride. The second half we stopped looking at the record and started just to focus on getting better.”
McVie was replaced after the season by Doug Carpenter, who coached the team for the next three-plus seasons before being replaced 50 games in the 1987-88 campaign by Jim Schoenfeld. “We went through quite a few coaches in the first number of years I was there,” Broten said. “It was a bit difficult because you don’t know what the new guy is going to expect. Everybody has a little different idea.
They would always tell us, ‘A new broom sweeps clean.’ You don’t know who is going to be around after they watch tape.” At the time, the fan base in New Jersey was still blossoming. Verbeek said it was still tough to compete for fans in the same market as the New York Rangers and the Islanders, who were wildly successful and had their streak of four straight Stanley Cups snapped in 1984 by Edmonton.
“It was still growing, and the state hadn’t identified with us being their team yet,” Verbeek said. “That’s a process. It was a process for the players and for the fans. “You have to start with the kids when you build a fan base,” he continued. “You always hear it, ‘Are you a Rangers’ fan or a Devils’ fan?’ The answer is, ‘Well, I grew up a Rangers’ fan because my dad was.’ We had to start with the kids, and you can see that now, 25 years later. Now there is a fan base built.” Those fans, though, at least had a sense of humor.
When Gretzky and the Oilers showed up at Brendan Byrne Arena on January 15 (a 5-4 victory over the Devils), many fans wore Mickey Mouse apparel. These same fans were also treated to the NHL’s mid-season show as the All-Star Game made its only appearance at the Meadowlands.
Cirella tallied a goal and Resch was the winning goaltender as the Wales Conference beat the Campbell Conference, 7-6, in front of a capacity crowd of 18,939. Once the season resumed, it was back to watching last place hockey. At least with the youth, there was a tomorrow for these Devils.
“As an older player, the losing would have been extremely tough on me,” Verbeek said. “On a personal level, I was just ecstatic and happy to be in the NHL. The losing bothered me, but I knew down the road we’d get better.”
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