We’ve been scraping the barrel for new Devils topics for a while now, so I figured I’d take a step back and go big picture in this strange time to be a Devils fan and, more broadly, a human person who lives on Earth in 2020. Under normal circumstances, we’d be well into the meat of an NHL season by now. We’d probably have a good idea whether or not this iteration of the Devils could be competitive or if it had/has a shot at actually crashing back into the postseason party. There would be the early returns on many of the questions facing the team that have been floated by various writers on this site over the past weeks and months. We’d be heading into the Thanksgiving holiday, during which the Devils typically play two or three games and much of the New Jersey diaspora returns home to pack the Rock for a home game or two.
Thanksgiving has always been a holiday associated with football. For me, that is partially true as I am a football fan, but as I advanced into adulthood, I began to associate the Thanksgiving holiday, or at least the broader weekend surrounding it, with hockey. My experience is probably not all that out of the ordinary for a millennial who grew up in New Jersey. After high school, I left the state to go to college and after graduating college I remained a New Jersey ex-pat, starting my adult life and career outside the friendly confines of the Garden State.
In my years living away from New Jersey, like many others, Thanksgiving was a time to return home and see family, and enjoy all the things one might miss about this beautiful mess of a state I grew up in. Upon returning, you’d see old friends, get a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich, maybe order pizza from your favorite local place, and fall into some of the old patterns, however briefly, you might have had before you left. If you’re a Devils fan, the return home would also be an opportunity to watch the Devils on local TV and/or go catch a game in person at the Rock (or the Meadowlands prior to 2007). Particularly if you don’t have the means (or desire) to splurge on an NHL GameCenter or Center Ice package, a return home to see family might be your only opportunity to see the Devils outside of a box score or game thread for most of the year.
This year, with many forgoing travel in the face of a pandemic and with hockey arenas silent, regardless, many of the things that might bring us joy or comfort in a normal year will be absent. Eventually, someday, the pandemic will recede and life will return to normal or at least some facsimile of it, but for now the immediate future holds scaled-down or virtual holiday celebrations and the likelihood of a new round of quasi-isolation in the face of worsening epidemiological conditions. Whether or not the NHL is successful in bringing hockey back by the first of the year, the odds that it includes fans in the seats (or at least more than a smattering of them) feel increasingly long. Either way, there is no NHL hockey on the TV or the ice for now and we are now in the longest stretch without Devils hockey since the entire 2004-05 season was cancelled by a lockout.
Many fans of NHL teams at least had an opportunity to watch their favorite team in the postseason bubble in the late summer. For the Devils and their compatriots in the league’s basement, it has now been over eight months since anyone has seen them on the ice. Missing out on NHL hockey is far down the list of most people’s priorities, but that doesn’t mean that we still can’t lament the loss of the return of the game and the crowds cheering it on that typically ushered in the winter months and offered mental respite from the cold, rapidly-shortening days. If you are reading this blog, there is a very good chance that you miss Devils hockey a lot right now.
There’s something about being a Devils fan that hits a little bit differently than other sports fandoms rooted in the area and makes me lament their absence even more. Even outside of the tri-state area, it’s not all that surprising to meet a Yankees fan or to find someone to grouse about the perpetually inconsistent Giants with. Even if you’re a Mets, or Jets, or Knicks, fan, lots of people will at least be familiar with your plight. With hockey being a somewhat niche sport in the States and with New Jersey being a sports market wedged between/composed of/overshadowed by two separate, larger sports markets in general, Devils fandom, at least for me, immediately engenders bit more camaraderie. Maybe this is a bit irrational, but when I meet an avowed Devils fan out in the world, there’s an immediate kinship there. It’s why I came to love returning to the state and going to Devils games so much after I left. Even now, with my permanent residence now once again in New Jersey, it’s why I love going to Devils games when out-of-town family or friends are back home for the holidays.
Ultimately, as I said above, the lack of NHL hockey is not overly high on the list of public priorities or concerns right now. Even so, here on this Devils blog, it’s a useful stand-in for all of the ways that the world is strange right now. We would all like hockey to be back to normal, even if we all know it’s not exactly possible for the time being. I am thankful for this community, though, for being a place where people, even in the midst of this long layoff and with the pandemic going on, have been reading and arguing passionately on everything from the coaching to prospects to Pavel Zacha and Brett Seney. It’s been nice to know that this is has continued to be a place for the Devils diehards among us to be passionate about this shared experience. So with that, I want to thank my fellow writers, the readers, and the commentariat for keeping the conversation going all these months. Hopefully, by next Thanksgiving, some version of normalcy will have returned, but in the meantime, stay safe, be considerate, and enjoy your holiday, even if it’s a scaled-back or Zoom-based version this time around. Go Devils.