Jim Dowd didn’t get a chance to drive up the Turnpike to East Rutherford too much during the mid-1980s to watch New Jersey’s own hockey team. After all, Dowd was too interested in pursuing his own hockey dream than watching others come true.
Nevertheless, Dowd has always had a sense for hockey, and he had a sense that the Devils were finally starting to come of age in their third season in New Jersey.
In 1984-85, the excitement wasn’t palpable throughout the entire state yet, but youth was most definitely being served in the Meadowlands. “You could see it coming with (Joe) Cirella, (Bruce) Driver, (Ken) Daneyko, (Kirk) Muller, (Aaron) Broten and (Pat) Verbeek,” Dowd, the Devils’ veteran forward, said before a recent home game. “You could definitely see it coming.”
Cirella was a staple on defense, entering the 1984-85 season as an All-Star. He was only 21 years old. Driver, 22, was primed to play his first full season on the Devils blue line. Daneyko, 20, was still battling in the minors, waiting for his turn. Muller was the 19-year-old rookie sensation, the No. 2 overall pick by the Devils in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. Broten, 23, was a veteran in the NHL, having already scored 44 goals in his first three seasons with the organization, including two years with the Devils. Verbeek, 20, was coming off a rookie season in which he played 79 games and registered 47 points.
These were only some of the kids. There was Paul Gagne, 22, who had 61 points in 119 games as a Devil so far. John MacLean, now a household name at the Meadowlands and Devils’ current assistant coach, was a mere 19-year-old forward with 23 games of NHL experience entering the 1984-85 season. Expectations weren’t high yet, but there was hope.
“There was progress, development, and a change in philosophy,” said Gagne, who played with the Devils until 1986. “They weren’t just making trades. They were starting to believe, and that’s one thing I do think about now.”
Wins didn’t come at a rapid pace for the ’84-85 Devils, but there were more of them, 22 in fact. The Devils won 17 games in each of their first two seasons, but in 1984-85 they finished 22-48-10.
They even had some streaks to talk about, like the three-game winning streak from November 24-29 with a 5-3 win over Pittsburgh, 3-2 over Minnesota, and 2-1 at Philadelphia. There was the five-game unbeaten streak in mid-December, which included a 7-5 win over the powerful Islanders at Nassau Coliseum, and a 5-2 victory over Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and the Edmonton Oilers, who were the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
The Devils had another four-game unbeaten streak in the second half of the season with another win over the Islanders.
“If management is doing things right, the template is to lay a good foundation and add a few more bricks each year, and pretty soon we’ll have a strong house,” Broten said. “They did that. They didn’t wipe the slate clean and start over. They kept a good core group of players who were around for a while. It’s different now. It’s more difficult to keep a big group of players around, but they did it right. They took their lumps and built a good franchise and foundation.”
The foundation was set after the 1984- 85 season as the youngsters showed their mettle and outworked some of the veterans for playing time.
“It was survival for the older guys,” Gagne said. “They wanted to stay as long as they could, so they had a role of being mentors and fathers because we were kids and the coaching staff can’t do it all. That’s where the leadership came in, and that was a positive. However, in 84-85, there were fewer veterans. There was more development with MacLean, Verbeek, Cirella, etc. Those guys became the core and they were developed at a young age.”
Mel Bridgman, a 29-year-old forward playing his 10th full season of NHL hockey in ’84-85, led the Devils with 61 points, but Gagne led the team with 24 goals, and Broten and six-year veteran Doug Sulliman tied with Bridgman for second on the team with 22 goals. Dave Pichette, a 23-yearold defenseman, led the team with 40 assists, but Muller had 17 goals and 37 assists in his rookie season and Broten had 35 assists.
Both Muller and Broten joined Bridgman as the only three Devils to play in all 80 games. MacLean had 13 goals and 20 assists in 61 games. Driver had nine goals and 23 assists in 67 games. Verbeek had 15 goals and 18 assists in 78 games. Cirella had six goals and 18 assists in 66 games. The youngsters were not only growing, they were contributing.
“It was a unique group, and it took a while for us to get there, with lots of growing pains,” Verbeek said. “You have to learn how to win, and that process takes a long time. When you learn how to win, that’s when tradition sets in.” Verbeek said one of the best things the young Devils had going for them was a winner right in their backyard. The New York Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83. They lost in the Cup finals to Edmonton in 1984, but the same core of veterans was still playing for the Islanders the next season. There was Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Bobby Nystrom, Denis Potvin and Billy Smith, all Hall of Fame names, and the Devils not only got to watch them, but they got to play and beat them.
That, as much as anything, helped this team grow up fast. That, as much as anything, is why the Devils haven’t gone backwards since. “We had the Islanders as a model to follow, and we learned a tremendous amount watching guys like Trottier and Bossy, and what they did to be successful,” Verbeek said. “When it was our time, we were on an even keel. That’s why we were able to eventually beat them (in the 1988 Patrick Division Semifinals). We understood it was our turn.”
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