… and now for something different!! As I had hoped for, people have begun to step up in the “Guest Host” project I am trying to take, just to mix it up and give you guys something ELSE to read… so please… send more!! And for all those who wanted to complain about the Edmonton, Calgary and San Jose games… here check out THIS story from the other side of the Ocean!!!! So I step aside again and hands the keys over to Barry Meikle…. GO!!
When you live somewhere 5 hours behind Eastern Standard Time, following American sports and the NHL in particular can be a demanding pastime. Sure the internet has made things a little easier, but there is still the little detail of a 7pm face off time translating to Midnight BST.
I first got into hockey in 1989. My dad, a big NFL fan since it had hit UK television in 1982, was keen to do something different on a Sunday evening the weekend of the bye week before the Super Bowl. “Ice Hockey” was suggested and off we went to the local pre World War II rink, one of only a handful or so fit for semi-pro hockey in Scotland at the time, to see a match between the Murrayfield Racers and the Ayr Bruins. I was immediately hooked. The arena was around two-thirds full and I had no idea how much noise 2000 people could make. Through buying programmes at subsequent matches I attended, I realised there was a league in the US and Canada. The match programme would feature results from the NHL. No dates, no match reports, no standings even, just results.
Getting information about a league over 3000 miles away back then was not easy. There was no internet and very little TV coverage. Ice hockey is very much a minority sport in the UK and unfortunately the old clichés about the sport being boxing on ice still exist here today to a certain degree. Newspaper coverage was minimal, almost non-existent with only the broadsheets carrying 2-day old results daily with standings once a week. There was Teletext* which I’m led to believe is a little like Telidon in the U.S. which gave results and standings. That was the best way to keep track of the season and work out the playoff format from seeing which teams played each other in the first round. (*Teletext was how I found out that the Devils had lost Game 7 of the Conference Finals to the Rangers in 1994. “New York 2 New Jersey 1, OT (New York win the series 4-3)”. That was all the information I got. No details, just the horrible news in a blunt, primary colour format.)
As cable and satellite TV became more widely available in the UK in the early 1990’s, the potential for seeing NHL games increased. Before that time we only had 4 channels available and they closed down after midnight. The only TV exposure I had to hockey before that had been Saturday afternoon re-runs of ‘He Shoots, He Scores’ featuring the Quebec Nationals, a fictional team with a distinctly non-fictional logo. Eventually we started to get an NHL ‘Game Of The Week’ which would be a one hour show of highlights from a game from the previous week. My first live TV NHL experience came in the 1990/91 season, a Saturday afternoon face off between the Devils and the Flyers from the Meadowlands with Doc Emrick commentating. Whether it was the novelty of seeing a ‘proper’ live hockey game on TV, even at a time when live soccer games were rare, or the fact that Kirk Muller scored after just 12 seconds, who knows. My decision was made. “That team, the Devils, I like them”.
The 1991 and ‘92 Stanley Cup Finals were broadcast on cable and I prayed in vain for the series to go 7 games so I could keep watching (which is probably why I have an irrational hatred of Mario Lemieux to this day). In 1993 we were down to a one hour show 24 hours after each game of the Finals and by 1994 TV coverage had disappeared altogether (hence the Teletext story above). My dad discovered the NFL on the Armed Forces Radio Network broadcasting from Germany on an old 80’s style hi-fi system he had. During the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, I decided to try my luck and was rewarded with play-by-play of Game 1. I had to turn the whole thing South-East to get the best reception and for some reason the already unpredictable reception used to fade gradually as the sun came up. The 1am starts during the Finals combined with a 4:30 sunrise during June conspired to make the reception fade completely before the end of the 3rd period. Consequently, I missed the last 3 minutes of the deciding Game 4.
The NHL moved to ‘Terrestrial’ TV in the UK in 1999 which showed 2 live games a week (on Wednesday and Sunday nights) and all the Stanley Cup Finals games live. Great, until you reach game 6 of the Finals between Buffalo and Dallas. Because the game overran its time slot by a good 2 hours due to triple overtime, Channel 5 had to cut away for good at 6am to revert to regular programming starting with the News, resulting in UK viewers missing the Cup winning goal by Brett Hull. The reason for the cut-away was because the two programmes used the same studio.
In 2000, I managed to see every second of the Cup Finals involving the Devils and the Dallas Stars including the marathon game 5 which ended at around 6:00 am BST. That was until I decided that the intermission between the 1st and 2nd overtimes of Game 6 would be a good time to ‘rest my eyes’. I woke up during the player celebrations with Scott Stevens about to be handed the Stanley Cup and I still can’t watch Jason Arnott’s Cup-winning goal to this day. One of the best moments in Devils history reminds me what an idiot I am. I think I must be the only Devils fan in history who has said, ‘Oh no!’ on discovering his team had won the Cup.
Finally in 2003 I got to see a Devils Stanley Cup win. Third time’s a charm. In 2002 a channel completely dedicated to North American sports (NASN, now called ESPN America) started up on cable which now shows live games virtually every night and 2 on Saturdays for Hockey Night In Canada. We can now also access espn360’s NHL Center Ice package online (for around $140 a season), so it is now possible for me to see every Devils game in a season, something which seemed unfathomable 15 years ago (hell, even 5 years ago).
In my 20 years of following the Devils, I have visited the States and Canada 6 times, taking in a dozen Devils games in the process, meeting some really cool people and having some fantastic times. The highlights include:
• Getting tickets to a Private box in the Air Canada Centre after a chance meeting with the President of the Devils fan club at the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 2001.
• Sitting beside and chatting to Mrs Pandolfo and Mrs Mottau during Opening Night at Prudential Center in 2007.
• Sitting 9 rows from the glass during the 2003 banner-raising ceremony in the same corner of the arena that the banner was raised from.
• Being chased through the streets of Toronto by irate Maple Leafs fans for waving a Devils banner after the Devils eliminated the Leafs from the 2001 Playoffs.
• Having an irrational hatred of Michael Nylander after he scored the winning goal in Calgary’s 2-1 win at the Meadowlands in November 1995, ruining my first Devils game.
• Meeting Scott from this very site in December 2009 and sitting in the legendary Section 209.