I'm not feeling all that well, so consider this your pump-you-up-it's-now-the-season post one day early. Also, please consider taking the SBN survey if you haven't yet. Thanks.
Tomorrow begins the 2011-12 NHL regular season for the New Jersey Devils. This is not a recap of what happened last time for the Devils. We know what happened. The Devils fell flat on their face for a multitude of reasons, both controllable and uncontrollable. The team was in such a deep hole such that they had a mere 9 wins by Christmas 2010. In fact, those 9 wins weren't even decisive with two coming in overtime and two coming from a shootout. It was that bad. A far superior second half of the season couldn't make up that much of a difference in the standings; and so they missed the playoffs. We know that.
We, the fans, expect better this season. We, the writers of ILWT, predicted that they will and explained why in a week-long preview not too long ago. Yet, outside of here, Driving Play, the Star Ledger, and perhaps a few other places, larger media outlets for hockey see the Devils ending up in the same place again: out of the playoffs. The Hockey News feels the Devils will be back in fourth in the Atlantic and eleventh in the East. Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy sees the happening to the Devils in his preview. Scott Burnside wrote a predictably negative preview of the Devils over at ESPN. The Sports Network wired this preview article to various papers, here in the Calgary Herald, that calls for a second straight season without the playoffs. This isn't to say that all who have argued as such are dead wrong and it can't possibly happen. Likewise, this isn't to say they won't be wrong either. But as a fan, you can't help but figure there's just not a lot of respect here.
Of course, there really isn't. Will that change the organization? Of course not. It's something that I think Devils fans should get behind for this season. Let's explore the general lack-of-respect sentiment first before getting into that.
Kevin wrote about this seemingly lack of respect in a post last Tuesday. I see where he's coming from and the reactions from the various users the comments as well. The most poignant one came from Barry G with the following:
First, the Devils play in New Jersey, the home of gasoline tank farms and the Sopranos, a piece of land that happens to lie between New York and Philadelphia. Second, Lou was never warm and fuzzy with the press, so they take it out on him by what they write. Third, while there are four teams in the greater metro area (I'm including Philly) the Devils have been the best team for most of the past decade, embarrassing the other clubs.
Get used to it guys and gals, the coverage will not change. It's because a team dared to come to New Jersey, and develop into a top notch club while the other three teams, in the "major markets" wallowed in mediocrity or worse. As a transplanted New Yorker who has lived here for many years, I can understand the psyche of the New York, Philly and NHL press. Their teams are always good while our team sucks, until the opposite is proven at the end of the season.
Let's hinge on the second point Barry made before jumping into the other two. Of course, the media wouldn't like Lou very much. Getting any inside information from sources out of New Jersey is incredibly tight. If the Devils make a trade, then it seems to come "out of nowhere," because no one can get a reliable grasp on what is happening behind the scenes. The Devils aren't usually forthcoming with salary information when announcing a new signing. Lou himself usually isn't forthcoming with any information unless it's not something that can be used against him or the Devils. From a management standpoint, this ability to keep everything close and secretive is admirable and advantageous. From a media perspective, it's anathema and so there aren't a lot of friends among reporter and the like. From our perspective as fans, it has it's plusses and minuses.
Even if Lou did a 180 and forced the Devils to become infinitely more open to the press and public, the Devils probably wouldn't get the credit they deserve from the larger media. The other two points Barry raised are important: New Jersey itself does not have a respectable perception. When an organization from said locale succeeds in the faces of larger "big markets" like New York and Philadelphia, those based in those markets aren't pleased.
For those of you unaware, let me explain why New Jersey, the state, has such a poor perception. Even though there are millions of people from so many different backgrounds, there have been general stereotypes about the state of New Jersey. They've propagated and mutated for decades. After living here for a little bit (or a while), you just tend to roll your eyes at them all. In the interest of brevity, I would like to combine the many stereotypes I've heard about this state and its denizens. This is a fly-over/drive-through state known for highways, gas farms, pollution, and traffic congestion. The women have big hair, the men have big attitudes, the youngsters (or people who think they're young) are have tans like Hulk Hogan and rule the shore every summer, the mob lurks in the shadows in some parts with gangs in the other, and everyone's got a big mouth. The state is really mostly comprised of either suburbs of New York City or Philadelphia. Any cities within the state - Newark, Camden, Trenton - are really small and shouldn't be visited on the count of being too dangerous or depressed. This leads some to lump New Jerseyans as essentially either being New Yorkers or Philadelphians - especially to the media since those are the markets - yet but no one from either city really wants them associated with their city. The most famous New Jerseyans not named Bruce Springsteen - whose most famous album was about leaving New Jersey - or Jon Bon Jovi are people playing characters; even on the "reality" shows. And, of course, everyone in New Jersey loves Springsteen & Jovi. None of these are considered to be compliments.
In terms of sports, New Jersey even looks worse. No one apparently cares enough to fill stadiums outside of the NFL, and any success by a team here has to be down to one or two simple truths that don't quite explain it all. For the Devils, that would be the neutral zone trap along with a fanatical devotion to defense. For the Nets earlier in the 2000s, that would be Jason Kidd carrying a roster. For Rutgers in 2006, that would be Ray Rice (even though he truly destroyed in 2007) and a weak schedule. The former two apparently still play in a swamp and it's a common error for people to forget Rutgers plays in Piscataway. Sports have furthered the "just suburb of NYC" image with the NY Giants, NY Jets, and NY Red Bulls all playing and practicing in New Jersey and not in the city/state they represent. Even the Women's Professional Soccer franchise that plays on Yurcak Field in Piscataway doesn't even call out that they're in New Jersey - they're just Sky Blue FC. When Jeff Vanderbeek was espousing that the Devils are truly Jersey's team, he wasn't wrong. With the Nets jumping to Brooklyn, the Devils will be the sole major professional sports team to state they are from New Jersey. Considering what many believe about the state as a whole, what franchise wants to represent New Jersey, an unrespectable place as a whole?
I understand that stereotypes, by their definition, do hold some truth to them. North Jersey is dominated by the NYC media market to a point where the state is just considered a part of the New York Metropolitan area; and south Jersey is similarly dominated by the Philadelphia media market. The pollution, gas farms, and traffic congestion are real. There are women with big hair, there are men with big attitudes, and some of us really do have big mouths. I could go on further, but the larger point is that the outside sentiment of New Jersey is set in stone, it's not very good, and there's very little we can do about it. We can pretend not to be New Jerseyans, but that would be living a lie. We could be indignant about it, but that's only going to add "whiny" to the laundry list of New Jersey stereotypes. Besides, whoever already believes in all of the above isn't likely to be dissuaded unless they actually want to be, so it's a waste of time. I don't know about you, but my own voice can't override television or popular culture. Therefore, I've resigned to it to a point after living here for 28 years, with one compromise. If outsiders want to think New Jersey has an attitude, then I got their attitude right here: if you don't like us, we don't care.
Of course, Lou Lamoriello - born and raised in Rhode Island - understood that a lot faster before some of these stereotypes even existed. More importantly, he lived it and implemented this sentiment into the organization.
I understand and appreciate that fans have been tired of the same lack of respect the Devils get. They're tired of the Flyers and Rangers getting much of the spotlight despite the fact that the recent championships that have come to this part of the country were won by the Devils. They're unhappy that despite the advances of coverage and communication that the larger media doesn't (or can't?) follow the league nearly as closely as the fans who are truly passionate about the team or the league or the sport to a point that they'll delve into detailed analysis to figure out who's succeeding and failing beyond a narrative. The Devils have been written into a narrative (e.g. "boring people with the neutral zone trap") and so they will remain unless they can be denigrated further. Therefore, larger media sees a team that flopped on their face last year and figure it's likely to happen again either because it's an easier conclusion than trying to figure out what went wrong and whether it's likely to happen again. They don't care as much as we do, and it shows. Unfortunately, it's not going to change any more than the larger stereotypes of New Jersey will be erased. Fortunately, it doesn't take away from the actual victories they have achieved.
Therefore, why not take a page from the Devils? I think I speak for all fans that this season is about redemption. However, it's not redemption on the media's terms or other people's terms. It's about getting back to where the Devils have been for the most part since 1993. It's about getting back to the playoffs and hoping to go deep because that's the goal for this season. It's about continuing to succeed with what we call Devils Hockey. For the uninitiated, that means defense is every player's responsibility, that discipline and professionalism are paramount, and a high work ethic is necessary. These concepts were in place as far back as then as they are now, and they won't be thrown away just because they didn't make the playoff last season - just like they didn't after 1996. The goal is to win as this is a results-oriented business; not to get the approval and respect of the larger media world. The hockey and general sports media has not liked Devils Hockey succeeding in the past and they won't like it now. They don't really want to see New Jersey succeed, especially in the faces of other larger markets. We shouldn't care because we should be focused on the team's success. Let's hope it begins starting tomorrow night with Philadelphia.