Listen, Blue-Nosed Knicks Snobs: Lemme Explain the Jersey Devils

You may not have noticed, but the best professional sports team in the neighborhood is stealing a championship on national TV.

The team is the New Jersey Devils. They play ice hockey very well, better than any other team in the world. Since ice hockey is one of the Western world’s greatest sports, and they’re currently the best at it, you might think that people would care about them. But to most New Yorkers, the Devils are like an indoor lacrosse team or a state senator from Maine: remote, irrelevant, unfashionable, symbolic of nothing.

“People in Manhattan, they don’t give a crap,” said Phil Esposito, the former Ranger and Boston Bruin who nowadays reads innocuous bits of hockey analysis on Fox Sports Net. He was standing near a ramp leading from the visitors’ dressing room to the ice just before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Devils and the Dallas Stars in the Continental Airlines Arena. A pair of Zambonis drove by, while the arena organist whirled through a melancholic rendition of “Rubber Ducky.” Mr. Esposito continued his dissertation. “They care about the Rangers, they care about the Knickerbockers, they care about Giants and the Jets, the Yankees and the Mets, but they just don’t care about these guys,” Mr. Esposito said. “And I don’t know why.”

Here are some theories, Espo: Hockey in the New York area is merely a cult, the Devils have no big stars, they play in the swamps of New Jersey and they have a reputation for playing a boring, defensive style. Above all, they stand for nothing bigger, except for the polyglot nature of hockey and suburbia, which is not the kind of thing that the Frank Defords of the world get worked up about.

But, they are a great hockey club. The Devils have compiled the second best record in the National Hockey League over the last decade; the only other New York-area team that comes close to that kind of consistent winning is the Yankees. They have become, with a limited budget, one of the best-run organizations in professional sports: frugal, familial, victorious. They play with flair and moxie. They hit hard and dart about the ice like barn swallows. And on June 5, they swarmed the defending champion Stars 3-1, to take a 3-1 lead in the series-one win away from a parking-lot victory parade.

And now they are about to belong to George Steinbrenner and his new YankeeNets corporation, which combines the greatest franchise in sports with one of the most hapless. The Devils will presumably fill the vast gulf between them. Earlier this year, John McMullen, the Devils’ 83-year-old owner, announced that he was selling the team for $175 million, after failing to persuade New Jersey to give him the rights to build a new arena in Hoboken, a slap shot away from the Garden. The transfer of ownership will take place in July, according to YankeeNets chief executive Harvey Schiller, at which point the last small-town team in the New York area will pass into the hands of a cable-content conglomerate with little ice in its veins.

Twenty years ago, the New York Islanders won the first of four consecutive straight Stanley Cups. They became one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the sport, but nobody in the city really cared. The Islanders were, well, islanders. For their fans on Long Island, the team was a rebuke to the big city, a claim to an identity of their own in the megalopolis. Long Island was riding high: Nassau County’s own Alfonse D’Amato had won a U.S. Senate seat; Grumman was cranking out fighter jets.

The Rangers’ moment came a decade later. Their Stanley Cup victory in 1994 marked an end to the longest championship drought in hockey. It is hard to imagine now that such a thing can be ascribed to hockey, but the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup run, coinciding with the early days of the Giuliani administration, went a long way toward helping the city rebuild its self-esteem. The Yanks may one day be remembered as this era’s boomtown team, but the Rangers touched it off. The cup was suddenly winnable, much as the city would soon prove governable. Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, the team’s Manhattan bachelors, toted the silver cup around town, to Yorkville bars and the set of David Letterman’s Late Show , goading the city into caring about this cult sport.

Underpaid and Unknown

But what about the Devils? In another era, in another place, they might have become symbols of something, in the manner of the 1970-73 Knicks or the 1969 Mets. But the Devils, born in Kansas City, raised in Colorado and transferred to New Jersey in 1982, cheered on by big-eared Bergen County kids in face paint and droopy red jerseys, have failed to transcend their bland status as the perfect hockey club.

The Devils are an anomaly in professional sports, especially in the New York area, in that almost all the members of the team are underpaid relative to their peers in the league. They have a raft of cheap and nifty rookies, including the best of the year, Scott Gomez, who is the first Hispanic player in the National Hockey League. Their two most dynamic forwards, a pair of Czechs named Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, each make less than a million dollars a year. Their team captain and most valuable playoff performer, the bone-crushing defenseman Scott Stevens, last year signed a contract to stay with the team, accepting much less than he would have gotten on the open market, because he was comfortable with its system.

The system. That’s what has defined the Devils for the last decade. The system has meant many things-a disciplined playing style, an organizational philosophy, an intolerance for contractual shenanigans-all of which have sprung from the team’s fiscally conservative general manager, Lou Lamoriello.

Mr. Lamoriello is a hard man and a shrewd negotiator. Players who stick it out in contract disputes often find themselves banished to small-market Canadian teams. In the dressing room, the Devils call the team the Firm. It is difficult to leave on your own terms. Mr. Lamoriello has his employees turn out their lights when they leave the offices for the night. He doesn’t want to go looking for them. He frowns upon family photographs in the office.

“Lou’s imprint is everywhere,” said Stan Fischler, a Devils commentator who has written nearly 100 books about hockey. “Lou is more closely identified with this team than any other executive in sports. Nothing happens that Lou doesn’t know about.”

The fate of the team under the YankeeNets depends entirely on its ability to retain Lou Lamoriello. As always, he is driving a hard bargain. Money he has (he made $7 million in the sale); control is what he needs. Fortunately for him-and for the YankeeNets-Mr. Steinbrenner is not much of a hockey man, so the control problem is not intractable. “Our goal is to keep Lou on board,” Mr. Schiller said. “There’s no need to talk about a plan B.”

Mr. Lamoriello has never looked better. Until recently, the Devils were considered boring: faceless, plodding, relentless, even a little mean. Manhattan’s hockey browsers preferred the less-than-mediocre Rangers, who had fragile stars with inscrutable psyches and inconsistent talents.

For a while, the Devils’ disciplined system seemed to be their undoing. Since winning the cup in 1995, the Devils have had numbingly productive regular seasons, only to underachieve miserably in the playoffs. Each year, they seemed to suffer brain-lock. The system, imposed from above, stifled them.

But this spring, something blossomed. In March, late in the season, Mr. Lamoriello fired Robbie Ftorek, the Devils’ humorless, at times paranoid head coach, with eight games left in the regular season, and with the team in first place! He replaced Mr. Ftorek with Larry Robinson, his easygoing assistant. The Devils started to have fun again. The team loosened up psychologically, and began to play with grit and joy.

Just Like the Yanks

In a way the Devils are like their new corporate cousins, the Yankees: no superstars, just a collection of level-headed professionals, a mix of hardened veterans and precocious kids. Mr. Robinson is their Joe Torre, a cool, wise, empathetic presence who provides an emotional ballast. Like Joe Torre, Mr. Robinson had a mediocre head coaching career prior to getting a starring role in the New York area. This spring, however, he has been perfect.

The team has a corps of great defensemen, most notably Mr. Stevens, the flashy speedster Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko, the stay-at-homer who has been on the team since 1983. They are complemented by a paradigmatic entourage of Russians: Alexander Mogilny, a dashing stylist; Vladimir Malakhov, a hard-shooting head case; Sergei Nemchinov, a taciturn workaholic; and Sergei Brylin, a tough little imp with soft hands.

“There’s no schmuck on this team,” Mr. Fischler said. “When Lou drafts, his scouts know that they’re looking for character guys.”

Well, maybe one schmuck, if you’re a fan of an opposing team. They have the league’s least popular player, Claude Lemieux, a gruff teammate and a cheap-shot artist-hockey’s Pete Rose, “the gum on your shoe,” as Mr. Daneyko recently put it-who is about as proven a playoff performer as there is in hockey. If you need to hate this team, then Mr. Lemieux is your man.

Despite all of this, the Stanley Cup’s final round has failed to rouse even the hockey purists, who seem to gripe about the state of the game almost as often as the masses who claim it’s impossible to follow the puck. Both the Stars and the Devils are defensive specialists who can choke the pace out of a game by clogging up space on the ice.

After Game 2 at the Meadowlands, the reviews were not good. “A slumber-fest,” said The New York Times . And in the days to come, there was more of the usual stuff about hockey’s dismal TV ratings.

In a move that smelled a bit desperate, ABC brought in Al Michaels to add a little ceremony to its broadcasts of the Stanley Cup finals, to make them seem like a big deal. But even though Mr. Michaels made the most famous call in American hockey history (He ended his play-by-play of the U.S. win over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics with the memorable phrase: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”), he has seemed out of place in the rabid air of a Stanley Cup arena.

But the old regulars fit in fine. After Game 2, in a corridor outside the Devils’ locker room, ABC color man Bill Clement, a former player who looks a little like Ivan Lendl, ambled by in a double-breasted suit, carrying a worn brown leather valise. He had just gone off the air.

Asked what the Devils would need to do to make Manhattanites care, he said, “They need to develop some glamorous players. This is what New Yorkers respond to: glamour.” As he said this, a button popped off his jacket and fell to the floor. “But the Devils are philosophically opposed to the type of system that generates someone of star caliber. Their system works against fan cultivation.”

“But, gosh,” he went on, “it’s interesting that we’re talking about a team catching on, when they’ve been here since 1982.”

Welcome to the National Hockey League, Mr. Steinbrenner.