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FanFirst Fridays: Top of the Mountain Edition

Last week we had our fan origin story. This is a greatest moment as a Devils fan story.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Dallas Stars at New Jersey Devils
This guy broke my heart. But it would merely set the stage for my greatest moment as a New Jersey Devils fan.
Lou Capozzola-USA TODAY Sports

The Devils renaissance this season has me dreaming big. Really, really big. I know, I know. It’s still early, lots of things can happen, yadda yadda yadda. Stop and just let a man dream. It hasn’t been often this past decade that my hockey team has been relevant. I find myself consuming all kinds of media these days, just looking to see if people are finally putting some respect on the fast, exciting, puck possessing, upstart hockey team from the Garden State.

Last week, I covered how I became a Devils fan and left it open for many people to share their Devils fan origin stories. This week, with the team allowing us to dream of a Gary Bettman-Nico Hischier silver chalice hand-off possibly as soon as 2023, I want to cover your favorite moment as a Devils fan. I imagine there are likely only three moments that maybe in the running. One from 1995, one from 2000 and one from 2003. Or maybe I’m wrong and you’re a younger fan who isn’t about to turn 51 like the author of this piece and it’s Jack Hughes getting drafted first overall and Ranger fans celebrating it? Or maybe you attended a game that will rise to the top? Whatever your memory is, mine is likely more cliche than most. But my two kids love hearing the story. I’ve told it to them multiple times and they laugh every time.

You’d think 1995, the first Devils championship would be the moment, right? Well, yeah, I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was in my Mom’s house, watching intently in a room by myself in LaVerne, California and standing with arms outstretched and screaming with joy as Mike Peluso sobbed on the Devils bench. But what I remember most was that the chatter around it began relatively quickly. It was a lockout-shortened season. So people who hated the Devils, like Ranger fans, would start murmuring about how the championship was fraudulent. It wasn’t a REAL championship because they only had 48 regular season games to get to the playoffs. Part of the lore of the Stanley Cup is excellence in 82 games and then having to win 16 more to get the best trophy in all of professional sports. I tried to not let it impact my feelings. I bought all the merch from that time. Hell, I still have the tee and the hat, though I don’t wear them at all because they’re really worn down and look like if I wore them out of the house, they might disintegrate.

Still in my closet, nearly 30 years later at this point, that 1995 championship was nearly hard to believe after so many seasons of mediocre hockey and the heartbreak of 1994.
Tyler Bleszinski

So yeah, even though I was standing on the top of the mountain, the team I’d chosen when I was like 12, had finally raised the Stanley Cup, others were attempting to minimize the accomplishment. I know it shouldn’t have bothered me, but even my family was doing it. I remember newspaper articles at the time were talking about the potential for an asterisk because of a lockout-shortened season. People would poke fun in the national media at the parking lot parade. Ha ha ha, look at the pathetic franchise without a real place for a parade. I seethed and just repeatedly said, watch, this team won’t just win one.

Well then the following season amplified the embarrassment. 1995-1996 the Devils became the first Stanley Cup Champion since the 1970 Montreal Canadiens to miss the playoffs. Cries of a fraudulent champion from 1995 only grew louder. Several more seasons passed and I was beginning to doubt my franchise myself. Was it a lucky Cup? Maybe this will be the only Devils trophy I ever get to see them win? I began to become resigned in the stages of grief after the euphoric high of 1995.

Then the Devils started to get some offense. The 1999-2000 team had a lot of disappointment in the rearview mirror. 1997 loss to the Rangers. Again. Then quarterfinals losses to the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins. Robbie Ftorek started the season as the coach. He would not finish as coach. It was March 23, 2000 that Ftorek was shown the door and another former Montreal Canadiens legend (after Jacques Lemaire guided the Devils to their first Cup) would take over. Larry Robinson took over probably the most talent-laden roster the New Jersey franchise has ever put on the ice. The A line with Jason Arnott-Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora were the answer to all the cries about how the Devils had no offense and could only win by trapping.

Fast forward to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Devils were faced with a 3-1 deficit to the hated Philadelphia Flyers. I can honestly say that the Flyers were my second most despised team on the planet behind the obvious one. I nearly folded the tent on the season, thinking it would be painful to watch the Devils go out this way and resume my wait for redemption on the minimized 1995 win. Thankfully, the Devils players got lit into by Larry Robinson which seemed to spark an avalanche rolling downhill that completely destroyed the Flyers. And this Patrik Elias goal made me realize that I was about to be traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina to be the best man at my brother’s wedding during the Stanley Cup Finals. I was freaking out to be this close now. You would’ve thought I had a relative playing on the team I wanted it so badly.

The Devils-Stars series went back and forth and was a tough one. Mike Modano and company had won the Stanley Cup the year before on a Brett Hull goal that Buffalo Sabres fans remain irate about to this day so the challenge would be a big one. I watched game five from a hotel bar in North Carolina, hoping for the best. Then Modano broke my heart.

I felt like the series, now at 3-2 Devils, was rolling the wrong way. I was getting traumatic flashbacks to the Rangers 1994 series where the team from New Jersey had a chance to finish it off and couldn’t do it. And the media still immortalizes Mark Messier for that series. Would Mike Modano be the new Messier? Would he stop the redemption tour?

After the Modano heartbreaker, the series shifted to Dallas. It was the night before my brother’s wedding. I bought some beer and hid it under the table at a hotel bar and thought people would be sharing it (I still bought other drinks from the bar, I just wanted to supplement the supply, sort of speak). My nerves were not in a good place. I wound up nervously drinking. Beer after beer after beer. The pace was picking up especially after this brutal hit from Derian Hatcher into A Line member Petr Sykora.

I was furious. To me that was an elbow to the head and any comparisons to Scott Stevens was simply wrong. The tension picked up, and quite frankly, I became more emotionally invested because of this. Win it for Petr! Do it boys! People in North Carolina weren’t really hockey fans yet even though the Whalers moved there in 1997. They couldn’t understand this rowdy guy sitting there with his uncle, wife and other family members who eventually bailed on the game as it went into double overtime. I didn’t realize it, but I’d drank way too much that night. I’d literally been drunk maybe like two other times in my life before that. But nerves would do that to you.

Eventually as the game got deeper and deeper, I realized that if the Devils somehow lost this game, they would likely drop game seven and my heart would be broken in new ways. Then, like a lightning bolt served up on a beautiful no-look backhand dish, and much like he did against the Flyers, Patrik Elias became legend. If anyone ever wants to know what hockey awareness is, just show them this clip:

It set off a mad celebration of one. In North Carolina in the middle of June in a hotel lobby. I ran around the lobby screaming, my arms raised, my body seemingly out of control. I didn’t care who heard, I didn’t care about anything else but that moment. It’s one of the few times in my life I allowed myself to just go absolutely bonkers in public and not care who was around me or what they thought. Granted the many, many beers I drank that night likely helped me with my reckless celebration, but I wasn’t so drunk that I can’t remember the pure euphoria I felt. Even if this was a party of one, I was gonna make it the greatest party ever. My team just reached the top of the mountain. No lockout season, no asterisks, no qualms that my team was becoming all I had ever dreamed of when I first fell in love with that red and green Christmas tree uniforms that jumped off the ice when seeing them live.

Yep, that was an incredible night...that led to my first hangover ever. As I mentioned, I really never drank that much so I didn’t go through the college hijinks many kids do. I was a guy who went to a commuter school who was a diligent workaholic from a young age. So, yeah, not a big drinker. I should’ve realized I was making a mistake that night.

I was giving the best man toast the next day and I’d never been very comfortable speaking publicly. I woke up to worshipping the porcelain god. Not once. Not twice. Not even a hat trick. But FIVE times. I went Tage Thompson on that toilet bowl in the hotel. Thank the good lord above that my brother’s wedding was an evening wedding because it gave me time to sleep after all the expulsions. Thankfully, I recovered well enough to give a great best man speech, even if I was pretty reliant on my written notes. But the euphoria didn’t leave me. I can still close my eyes to this day and slow down and rewind and see that beautiful backhand pass to the Man Hulk Jason Arnott pounding it home and sending me into the greatest single go crazy moment I’ve had in my life.

So, that’s it for me. The Devils further cemented themselves as one of the greatest hockey franchises of the late 90s, early 2000s with another win in 2003 and came agonizingly close to two in a row in 2001. But that 2000 Stanley Cup win will always resonate in my mind as one of the best moments of my life. Embarrassment, drunken public behavior be damned. Now, if only this group, who I love almost as much as that 2000 team with flare and speed and offense, could somehow catapult the franchise back to the pinnacle, I may somehow top that 2000 celebration because my son and daughter will be able to celebrate it with me. But that’s still TBD. Fingers crossed.

What about you? What’s the top of the mountain moment for you? Was it that first “The championship to New Jersey Doc Emrick moment”? Was it “’s over!”? Or were you also doing crazy laps in a random hotel lobby after Arnott beat Ed Belfour for championship number two? Let’s hear it below!