I grew up a Devils fan. I was born in 1992 and there’s a picture somewhere in my house of 3-year-old CJ sitting in the top of the Stanley Cup after the 1995 championship, which means I’ve loved this team for my entire conscious life. I’m sure I’m not alone in this — I’d venture to say my life as a sports fan is a typical one. Something this lifelong affinity for a single franchise does is make you rather immune to, however, are certain quirks of your team that make them undesirable to other fans of the sport. The Devils of my youth were certainly a successful team, but living in the shadow of their the NY rivals on one end and the Philly rivals on the other, with a defense-first team, a no-nonsense GM, and a cramped stadium buried in a swamp virtually inaccessible by most of the state, it’s not hard to see why fans wouldn’t flock to the team.
But that is not who the Devils are anymore. These Devils are different. These Devils are likeable.
The Superstars and the Team
While they are not yet a Stanley Cup contender, the Devils are a team with a ton of young talent already on their NHL roster that are coming off their first postseason birth since 2012. It’s no secret that offense is marketable, and with the supremely talented 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier playing alongside the Devils first ever Hart trophy winner, Taylor Hall, the team has finally acquired the superstars necessary for that entertainment factor.
But these aren’t just any pair of good forwards — they’re likeable. Nico Hischier’s first precious moment as a Devil was how he simply “loves to hockey,” and before the season even started, he wrote a Player’s Tribune piece that includes a picture of him in a Devils jersey as a kid and talks about how he went to see Taylor Hall play when he was 11. He’s not only adorable and willingly putting himself out there, but he is also the first ever Swiss first-overall pick, and represents the figurehead of a new era of European prospects for a franchise that is about to play a preseason game in Nico’s (and Mirco Mueller’s) home country, Switzerland, and open the regular season in Sweden where Jesper Bratt and Marcus Johansson were born. In the quest to make expand the international profile of the league, the Devils are arguably ground zero.
Taylor Hall is also an unprecedented figure in Devils history. Aside from being the first Devils MVP, he has a genuine interest in fan outreach — having said in the past that players should be more involved in social media (perhaps they could take a page from Keith Kinkaid’s book). In a time when some other sports have bona fide superstars with no interest in marketing themselves, having the league MVP be a vocal proponent of the notion is invaluable. From a more personal perspective, I also love that he is one of the more analytically-savvy players in the league. There’s so very little to dislike about the Devils foremost two stars. Watching an elite talent like Hall, in his prime, guide the merry band of speedy youngsters like Nico, Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher, and Miles Wood (hopefully), etc. to league-wide relevance is a pretty tough story to hate on.
The Devil Experience
But it’s not just the on-ice product that is easier than ever to appreciate about the Devils. There has been a concerted effort over the last decade, and even moreso in the last few years, to make Devils games a fun night out. Getting to games has never been easier with the stadium a 10-minute walk from Penn Station. Once there you walk up to a Championship Plaza which, on multiple occasions over the year has yard games, performances, and liquid courage among the pre-game festivities. Then you enter Prudential Center which, to be fair, has made some controversial concessions decisions recently, but is also home to a 3D projection display on the ice and the largest indoor scoreboard in the world. There’s also been a concerted effort to give fans other reasons to come to games by having 15 theme nights which were mostly successful (I go to Star Wars night every year). It’s unsurprising that fans seem to thoroughly enjoy their visits to The Rock, rating 4th out of 68 major market teams and highest among NHL teams in fan experience by J.D. Power Rankings.
For a team who had very recently been suffocating in debt, new owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer have a lot to be proud of. The attendance is up, the TV ratings are up, and fans are enjoying the experience.
The Non-Hockey Stuff
The Devils are fun to watch, the games are fun to go to, but those can feel rather shallow reasons to root for a team. Why should you root for the Devils. Well let’s start with what anyone who watched the All-Star game this year knows, Brian Boyle was a national treasure.
After being diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, Boyle went on to return to his old stadium in Tampa Bay as the Devils representative at the All-Star game after Taylor Hall couldn’t attend due to injury and received a heart-warming standing ovation. Whether it was that, or scoring a goal on Hockey Fights Cancer night, or ultimately winning the Masterton Trophy, Boyle’s overcoming adversity in the fiery, emotional way he did was the feel-good story of the NHL season.
That was an unambiguously good and well-publicized storyline of the Devils season, but not the only one deserving of attention. I’ll mention two more here, both areas in which members of the organization are pioneers.
The first area is actually more of a story of franchise redemption on a critical issue. As some of you may or may not have heard, Lou and the Devils of the past were wrapped up in some controversy surrounding failure to follow concussion protocols (PAYWALL, secondary source). Given the fact that this is a hot-button issue which clouds the future of the NFL and threatens to do similar to the NHL, the fact that the Devils are the team most implicated in this story is disappointing to say the least. What dulls the pain though is that this story has broken after the franchise moved on from the anachronistic GM and since then, at least one Devils player has become a pioneer launching the Devils to the right side of history on the issue. Ben Lovejoy became the first NHL player ever to pledge his brain to CTE research. Hopefully, many more hockey players will follow Ben’s lead so we can make this sport safe enough to let our children play in good conscience.
That would be enough, but it’s actually not even the only pioneering story of the Devils year. In the beginning of the season, the Devils entered a landmark deal when they partnered with the Metropolitan Riveters of the NWHL, in the process, becoming the first NHL team to partner with an organization from the women’s hockey league. The Riveters, who play at The Rock and went on to win the Isobel Cup, are a pioneering story to be proud of in their own right. Corey Masisak, the Devils beat reporter for The Athletic, wrote an excellent profile on Riveters forward Harrison Browne (PAYWALL), the first ever openly transgender professional hockey player. Already popular, Browne became an leader in the LGBTQ movement while donning the top-selling Riveters uniform. Though now retired, while taking the next step in his physical transition, Browne’s story is an inspiration seen in Newark, but felt all over the sports world.
Everyone Should Be Rooting For The Devils
You’ll notice that the title of this piece is not “Everyone Should Be a Devils ‘Fan.’” You should be if you’re from New Jersey seeing as they’re the state’s only professional major sports team, but, obviously, everyone has a favorite team and we’re all going to be a “fan” of that team first and foremost. There are some things that tends to be true regardless of affiliation, though. No one want’s the big bad Blackhawks to win anymore, especially given the ridiculous amount of national press they get even when they suck. Most people found Vegas to be a good story and thought Ovechkin deserved his cup. There are teams that are easy to root against and easy to root for. And right now, with a new, more open GM, a younger, faster, more offensive team, a thoroughly enjoyable gameday atmosphere, and a ton of feel-good stories ... the Devils couldn’t be easier to support.