As champagne corks popped 50 feet away, Stéphane Richer, still in uniform right down to his skates, punched numbers into a pay phone outside the New Jersey Devil dressing room in the Byrne Meadowlands Arena. Richer already had spoken to his mother in Quebec and now was trying to reach his golf club, where friends had gathered to watch last Saturday night's Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, which the Devils had won 5-2 to complete a sweep of the Detroit Red Wings. The line was busy.
Of all the bouquets owed the swamp-dwellin', trap-playin', Cup-winnin' Devils, the most fragrant in this era of lottery-jackpot salaries is this: New Jersey is not a cellular-phone kind of team. Praise the old-fashioned hockey virtues and pass the quarters.
If Richer on the pay phone in full battle gear looked absurd, that scene was no more bizarre than the celebration that had swirled moments earlier on the ice. The Devils took turns skating with the Cup, holding the hardware aloft and then smooching it, not prissy, salon air kisses, but hard, lips-on-silver smackers. The 19,040 witnesses roared their approval.
This is hell proclaimed a sign in the southwest corner of the rink, a sentiment with which Devil owner John McMullen probably would not quarrel. McMullen is vexed with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which runs the arena in the Meadowlands, and has threatened to take a sweetheart deal and move the Devils to Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry and Ms. Parton. Goodbye, Jersey; hello, Dolly? Thus, the Devils could become the first team in major pro sports to win a championship in one city and defend it in another.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that the question of the move, which provided discordant background music to the spectacular rise of an underappreciated team, would be addressed after the finals. The fans, who believed Bettman won't stand in the way of a relocation to Nashville, booed Bettman when he presented the Cup to New Jersey captain Scott Stevens, but most seemed to buy Bettman's premise of play now, fret later. Other than the occasional chant or sign—NASHVILLE ALREADY HAS ENOUGH PEOPLE WITHOUT TEETH read one placard in New Jersey at Game 3—Devil fans seemed content to tailgate in the parking lots, knock beach balls about in the stands and let the Nashville story stay in the background. This was a classic case of denial, although it wasn't too hard imagining those Stanley Cup smacks as a last kiss.
To New Jersey. Not to the Cup. The Devils lost a Game 7 double-overtime heartbreaker to the eventual champion New York Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, and they made the next step in 1995. The decisiveness of their win in the Cup finals, however, made it seem like a leap. New Jersey outplayed, outhit and outcoached Detroit in a series that left the Wings as stranded as a seedy hitchhiker. "We never really got frustrated," Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said. "It didn't go long enough for us to get frustrated."
These Devils are no dynasty—a dynasty doesn't move four times in 22 years, which would be the case if the Kansas City Scouts-Colorado Rockies-New Jersey Devils wind up as the Nashville Dollys—but they will be among the NHL elite for years if they keep their young stars. Martin Brodeur, the 23-year-old netminder who had a 1.70 playoff goals-against average, and 21-year-old defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who scored a spectacular goal in Game 2, are restricted free agents, and New Jersey has the right to match any offer they receive this summer. The price of victory for a franchise notorious for watching its pennies—Richer's use of the pay phone is an all-purpose symbol here—will be steep.
The Devils have the formula for success for the late 1990s: size and speed. Their top 12 forwards were, on average, a half inch taller and nine pounds heavier than the Wings'. And if New Jersey couldn't handle Detroit in a skills competition, the Devils skated better than the flashier Wings. "I thought the guys deserved a little more [respect] from their opponents," New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire said after the series. "That's one reason our guys were aggressive, because they got no credit."
Seventeen Devils had points in the four-game series. Eleven Devils accounted for the 16 goals they scored, including Jim Dowd, who had the winner in pivotal Game 2, the only match he played. Claude Lemieux scored only two goals in the series but deserved the recognition he received as the postseason MVP. Lemieux had just six goals in 45 regular-season games, but after signing a three-year, $3.6 million contract just before the postseason began, he produced his best hockey, rifling in 13 playoff goals, including three game-winners. "I wish we would have taken the deal for Lemieux when they offered him around in February," Red Wing coach Scott Bowman said. "He's a clutch player who scores a lot of important goals."
Which was something Detroit certainly wasn't doing. Throughout the four games the Wings had no time to make plays, because New Jersey was in their faces, breaking up rushes, deflecting shots, forechecking their defense. Detroit, which averaged 36 shots per game in the first three rounds of the playoffs but were limited to 18 against New Jersey, hadn't seen anything like it all year.