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...Long is the way
From the packed stands at Byrne Meadowlands Arena, East Rutherford, N.J., last Thursday night they chanted their approval of the beleaguered man in goal: "Chee-CO (clap-clap)...Chee-CO (clap-clap)...." Though his team, the New Jersey Devils, had gotten off to an encouraging 3-1-3 start, the neighborhood bully New York Islanders were about to hand the Devils their fourth consecutive defeat. So those cheers must have sounded heavenly to Glenn (Chico) Resch, a player who has been to hell and back more times than Audie Murphy.
With the Devils trailing 4-2 and fading fast in the third period, Resch had just stopped the Islanders' top sniper, Mike Bossy, twice—once on a sprawling save as Bossy cut right to left across the crease and then with a pad save as the winger tried to backhand the rebound. Rebounds and second chances are a fact of life when you play in net for a club that last season, as the Colorado Rockies, was the worst in the NHL.
Let Milton's fallen angels whine about being tossed out of heaven into hell. At least they were never traded from the Stanley Cup-winning Islanders to the cash-strapped and woeful Rockies, as Resch was in March 1981. He suffered. "I'd get 35 or 40 shots a night in Colorado," Resch says, "and toward the end money got so tight management stopped buying sticks and started taking game pucks out of the souvenir stands."
Resch and the crumbling Rockies were saved from extinction last summer when New Jersey-born, Manhattan-based shipping magnate John J. McMullen, who owns the Houston Astros, headed a group that bought the franchise and moved it to the Meadowlands, a venture McMullen says "cost just under $30 million." That figure includes a total of $16.5 million in indemnity payments he will have to make to the Rangers, Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers for his intrusion into the Rangers' territory and the other two teams' media markets.
While McMullen says an average attendance of 15,000 this season in the 19,023-seat Byrne Arena will enable him to break even on operating costs, Devil Public Relations Director Larry Brooks says break-even on a $30 million investment "is about six Stanley Cups." At week's end the Devils, who had a 3-6-3 record, had averaged nearly 14,000 fans for seven home dates. That included sellouts against the Rangers on Oct. 8 and the Islanders on Thursday. If the remaining five home games with those metropolitan rivals also are sellouts, as they're expected to be, the Devils could well average 13,000. Last season the Rockies drew 7,232 a game.
At this stage Brooks speaks only in jest about Stanley Cups because the team McMullen brought to New Jersey was noted for making bad trades and squandering draft choices. It was also a team that, since its birth as the Kansas City Scouts in 1974, had appeared in only two playoff games, losing both to the Flyers in 1978.
In two particularly boneheaded front-office moves, Colorado traded its No. 1 draft choice in 1977, Barry Beck, a tough and talented defenseman, to the Rangers in 1979 for four players no longer with the franchise. The Rockies topped (or bottomed) that move in 1981 by signing Boston Forward Dwight Foster as a free agent and compensating the Bruins with, among other things, a swap of 1982 draft positions. Because Colorado finished last last season, the Rockies could have had first choice in June's draft. Instead, they picked eighth—and Foster was sold to the Detroit Red Wings last week.
Henceforth, says McMullen, the Devils will build via the draft. "We may not be able to copy the Islanders exactly, but we'd be foolish not to try," he says. So the question is: Will Devil fans—especially the approximately 9,200 season-ticket holders—be patient? Much of the answer may ride on the performance, leadership and savvy of the 34-year-old Resch. Twice a second-team All-Star and fourth in 1982 All-Star balloting despite playing for the Rockies, the little (5'9", 165 pounds), acrobatic netminder appears to be the Devils' only bona fide gate attraction and media celebrity. "I tell the guys we could be Islanders West—not Colorado East," he says. "We're in New Jersey, but it's really like New York, and there's no place like New York to succeed."
Resch sees the New Jersey fans as craving entertainment now, victories later. "They're not stupid," he says. "They know we're going to struggle for a while. But all we have to do is give them a good effort. Try. Entertain them. Right now we're in the entertainment business as much as the winning business. I tell the guys, 'Be entertaining. Let's put on a good show.' I'll do somersaults out there if I have to."