Who in the hockey circle could ever forget the New Jersey Devils Hockey Club being described as a Mickey Mouse organization. These words were once uttered from the mouth of arguably hockey’s greatest player, “The Great One” — Wayne Gretzky. When the Brantford, Ontario native spoke the hockey world listened, especially back in the day — his day. This comment came during Gretzky’s prime during the 1984 season when the Edmonton Oilers were about to embark on their dynasty run. Sure from a public relations standpoint this might have been a faux pas, yet the “Great One” said it with honesty and to say the least it was true — back then at least. Fast forward through time and oddly enough, the Devils will be skating in their fifth Stanley Cup Finals come Wednesday night.
Across the country on the west coast comes New Jersey’s opponent for the 2012 edition of the Stanley Cup — the Los Angeles Kings. Again it seems that Mr. Gretzky has had his hands in on this association as well. This time more action than words as he was part of perhaps the biggest trade in league history. On August 9, 1988 a blockbuster deal was made by recent King’s owner, Bruce McNall, to acquire Number 99 from the Oilers to build a Stanley Cup contender in Los Angeles. This transaction rocked the hockey realm where Canadians mourned the loss of a player they considered a national treasure. Present time, the Kings will be making just their second appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals and their first since Gretzky led them there in 1993.
Garden State or Golden State
Neither the Jersey Shore nor Hollywood is really known for being a hockey hot bed, although both states have been pumping some pros into the NHL as of late. These two non-traditional hockey areas will produce even more players in the future as well with their recent draft selections. Some common names you’ll hear these days are van Riemsdyk (Middletown, NJ-Flyers), Ryan (Cherry Hill, NJ-Ducks), Wellman (Brentwood, CA-Rangers), and Orpik (San Francisco-Penguins).
The Devils play at “The Rock” or Prudential Center which is located near the heart of Newark, New Jersey. Let’ be honest besides being one of the most accessible arenas in the league, not really much going on around these parts. It ain’t New York City of lower Manhattan and it ain’t Philly either. It is for all rhymes and reasons — just Jersey in un-Snooki, non-drama fashion.
The Staples Center now is a tad different. Located in downtown LA this home complex to the Kings isn’t too far off the beaten path of the Hollywood Strip. Often times during the regular season the seats at 1111 S. Figueroa Street will have celebrities such as David & Victoria Beckham, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jesse James, Rob Zombie, and Jack Nicholson to name a few. Gosh! Could you imagine if the Kings won the Cup for the first time in team history. I can only fancy the stories and parties of Lord Stanley in the hills of West Beverley. The Cup would certainly find itself loaded up with plenty of champagne inside the world’s most famous grotto at the Playboy Mansion. Hopefully TMZ, People, and Star will fill us all in on the glitz and glitter of the Kings celebrating in the “after hours”, if in fact Los Angeles wins in the finals.
Regardless who brings home the Cup there is some uniqueness that surrounds the team compositions in management, captains, and players too.
Made in the USA
Well this guy must know something about managing a hockey club and more so managing people. Sure he’ll tell it is not so much his actions, but rather having a surrounding of the right people to make the success. New Jersey’s General Manager, Lou Lamoriello, has served longer than any current GM in the business with a single franchise. He has been at his post since 1987.
In his tenure with the Devils, he has produced 10 division titles, 5 conference championships, and three Stanley Cup titles as well. It is no surprise the Providence, RI native has routinely built a successful franchise year after year. His leadership skills shined as a young man while attending Providence College in the early 60s as he captained both the varsity hockey baseball teams his senior season.
He then coached PC’s men’s program to several successful campaigns as well as holding the athletic director title. Lamoriello was also Hockey East’s first ever commissioner and was an instrumental figure in negotiating a settlement for the NHL strike season.
The team has assembled and made transactions for this year’s Devils team which was ultimately driven by Lamoriello of course. So if New Jersey wins it will be nothing of a surprise, but more of an expectation. Lamoriello creates a winning system with winning people. He has built a brilliant coaching staff, scouting team, secured a future Hall of Fame goaltender in Martin Brodeur for many years, drafted and developed many All-Star skaters too like Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Patrik Elias. Plus he has the know-how of signing free agent talents of David Clarkson, Andy Greene, and Stephan Gionta. There is a system, a plan, and Lamoriello knows how to execute to a tee every time.
The King’s man-in-charge is Dean Lombardi. Like his Devilsh counterpart, Lombardi is a New Englander, too, with Italian descent from Holyoke, MA and attended college as well. He original played college hockey at Elmira College but then later transferred to the University of New Haven to captain his team during his junior and senior seasons.
The leadership skills and bright business acumen were on display early in his career. Originally a player’s agent then crossing over in a management role in the late ‘80s with the Minnesota North Stars and lead him with the expansion San Jose Sharks in 1991.
The tenure as executor of the LA Kings began in April 2006. Under his guidance he is responsible for drafting the talents of Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez, and Slava Voynov. But his mastermind really has not been rewarded until this season as he craftily managed to acquire veteran leadership in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Willie Mitchell, Simon Gagne, and Dustin Penner.
Lomardi also recognized years ago that Los Angles had a very solid core of young players in Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Jon Quick.
Lombardi has achieved all this with the backing and support of ownership to follow the development course while positioning the club well under the salary cap now and in the immediate future to help keep the organization’s homegrown talent for the long haul. There is nothing more Lomardi wants more than to bring the Cup back to the city of LA and bolster his impressive resume even more as a champion.
For the first time in league history, the fearless leaders of the teams playing for the ultimate prize in professional sports are both American. The captains are Zach Parise (Minneapolis, MN) of the New Jersey Devils and Dustin Brown (Ithaca, NY) of Los Angeles Kings. Both are part of the prized 2003 NHL Draft class that has produced so many top-end players like themselves.
Parise has a little bit of hockey history in his family, as father J.P. was fortunate enough to play 890 games in the NHL. Zach is blessed with a high-end hockey sense perhaps gifted from the family bloodline, as he has tremendous offensive and defensive instincts. Parise is very active in the transition game as he anticipates defenders well and makes quick decisions with and without the puck. He excels in skating, possesses an arsenal of shots, has above-average stick handling skills, and is an exceptional playmaker to with his sound vision. The beauty of Parise too is that he is very versatile, fiercely competitive, and plays with an edge, sort of like his nemesis for these Stanley Cup Finals.
Brown is a gritty scoring winger who is always willing to pay the price for his team which makes him a premium, just like Parise. The reason he wears the “C” for the Kings is his inspirational and fearless play that tends to be addictive to his teammates. He is a good overall skater with quick acceleration and is well-known for driving to the net. Like the “Zach Attack”, he has a deadly accurate shot with creativity and versatility to his game and of course loves to dish out physical punishment on his opponents.
Besides both being first round selections to their current teams and ‘94s their travels taken to the big leagues were a bit distinctive. Parise was an absolute stud as he prepped for two years at the hockey factory of Shattuck St. Mary’s. He produced some killer numbers while schooling in Faribault, MN before taking his game for another two seasons for the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota (NCAA). After back-to-back 20+ goal campaigns under Dean Blais, Parise fore-went his junior and senior years for the pro ranks. After seasoning his game one year in the AHL in Albany, he has never looked back while in New Jersey tallying four 30-goal and a 45-goal seasons.
Brown tore up the public high school ranks in New York State for two seasons in his hometown, then jetted his career north to the major junior level of the OHL. After starring for the Guelph Storm for three seasons were he amassed 113 goals in 198 career CHL games, he made a favorable impression the next season in King’s training camp to make a roster spot. During the 2004-05 NHL lockout season, Brown honed his game even more down in Manchester (AHL), which could have been a blessing in disguise. He now has produced four 20-goal and a 33-goal terms in eight seasons in LA.
Parise and Brown of course will be on opposite sides come puck-drop time but they are familiar with each other. Both these star-studded American players represented Team USA in the 2010 Olympics, but also wore the red, white, and blue back in 2003 at the World Junior Championships.
The Green“e” Machines
Another kind of fascinating note to these 2012 Stanley Cup Finals is the fact of each team having a defenseman with the last name Greene. What is even more compelling is that both spell their names with the additional “e”. If that’s not enough then how about the reality of both being American and each hail from Michigan as well. You want more? Both players developed their game in the NCAA college hockey ranks before embarking on their pro careers, at the present time during their quest for the Cup each is twenty-nine years old, and each brings home a cool $3 million in salary approximately for their puck services.
Well OK, not everything if the same. One played at the University of North Dakota (WCHA) while the other earned his degree at Miami University (CCHA). One was a second round selection in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft while other made his way into the NHL by signing as a free agent. One’s frame is a bit bigger at 6’3” 232lbs. and on the flip side the other is only 5’11” 190lbs. Yes, they are in fact the same age but one was born in 1983 as opposed to being a 1982 birthdate. One shoots right while the next is left-handed. The rearguard who pulls his jersey on for the Kings wears #2 and the blue liner for the Devils represents in number 6. So I guess not everything is the same in the name.
Oh yeah, did I mention the first is named Matt and the second is name Andy.
Each and every year the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs prove more and more entertaining and obtaining a long-term TV deal certainly helps the cause. The game of hockey continues to grow in the Unites States as exposure is at an all-time high. The evolution of the game continues and the atmosphere is undoubtedly different from the mid ‘80s when the Devils were described with an analogy of an anthropomorphic black mouse in red shorts, large yellow shoes, and white gloves.
If asked again, I’m sure Gretzky would say the Devils are not ruining hockey rather growing the sport for the good of the game.
Follow Russ Bitely for more hockey talk, news, comments, & opinion on Twitter: @russbites