In 1994, the Devils came within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, then waited through a lockout for an abbreviated 48-game season. When the puck finally dropped in 1995, they wound up skating all the way to a stunning Stanley Cup victory.
Last year’s Devils fell two wins shy of a title. Now midway through training camp, the 2012-13 squad is preparing to begin its own 48-game slate Saturday on Long Island.
Three-time Stanley Cup champion and MSG Networks analyst Ken Daneyko remembers feeling that the 1994-95 squad was special right from the start. He also believes that anyone underestimating this year’s club could be in for a big surprise.
Daneyko spoke to NewJerseyDevils.com during this week's camp at AmeriHealth Pavilion.
After coming up short in ‘94, how hard was it waiting so long to start the next season?
That was the most difficult part mentally. Look, it’s difficult on every player, and obviously that’s what you know, that’s what you love to do, and that’s your life: playing the game of hockey. Missing three months and waiting and waiting is difficult on you mentally, but especially for teams like us that got so close. You go, Oh man, we really wanted to get back at it and try to get to that next step, to a finals and win it all. But you do what you have to do and try to keep yourself mentally and physically sharp. When we finally got going, it certainly turned out the way we would’ve liked. You realize the games are more intense. They’re Eastern Conference games. It’s almost like playoff hockey throughout. That makes it exciting for the fans, and it was exciting for the players playing a lot of rivals and understanding the importance of every game. They’re almost four-point games because you’re only in the Eastern Conference.
How about the 48-game schedule?
Everyone thinks there’s this magic wand you wave as far as, Short season, you have to prepare differently. It’s not that much different. You know you can’t lose too many games in a row, especially early, or you’ll find yourselves out (of contention). Although, we did start slow, we know that. But fortunately for our team, we had such a veteran-laden group that, you know, it’s not always recommended to turn the button on and off, but we were one of those rare teams that could. We knew we just had to get in and we were going to be dangerous because of the previous year in ‘94 and getting so close to a final, getting so close to winning it all, which we thought we would have if we had gotten past the Rangers.
You have to be consistent. It’s such a compact, jam-packed schedule that your mental focus has to be that much stronger as a team. You can’t go through those three-game slumps where you’re just not sharp and you’re not there. You’ve got to really focus on that and I think that’s what Coach (Pete) DeBoer did a great job with last year. He’s really going to have an impact to make sure they’re prepared every night, knowing that every point is crucial with a shortened season.
It’s such a compact, jam-packed schedule that your mental focus has to be that much stronger as a team. You can’t go through those three-game slumps where you’re just not sharp and you’re not there. - Ken Daneyko
With so many returning players, will the memory of last year make this year's team a hungry group?
It certainly should. Obviously you have the old, wily vet Marty Brodeur who went through ‘94 and can lend some experience and some knowledge from what he can remember from back then. It’s amazing he’s around and still doing what he does. He’s going to be a guy they can lean on. Patrik Elias didn’t play that year, but he’s a veteran, savvy guy. You rely on veteran guys. A team of veterans can be very beneficial because they really understand every situation and what has to be done, what has to be accomplished. You’re chomping at the bit saying, Boy, we got so close last year, we battled the Kings to six games, and almost were able to do what every player plays for, and that’s to raise the Stanley Cup. I’m sure they’re awfully excited to be here now. Yeah, they lost Zach Parise, but that’s the nature of the beast and you have to move forward. You can’t just sit here and sulk and say, We lost one of our better players. It gives young guys the opportunity to step up, and you try to fill the void collectively. You’re not going to replace him with one guy. I always used to look at it like even if a defenseman went down when I was a kid, it gives me a better opportunity. Accept the challenge and maybe I’m getting more minutes. Maybe I can prove I’m a guy that belongs, I’m a guy that can be a regular. These young guys may get a little more of an opportunity with Zach gone.
Was there a point during the ‘95 season when you thought that team was capable of doing something special?
From what I remember–and it’s a long time ago, but fond memories nonetheless–we knew we were special starting the season even though it was a shortened season with the wait. We were only four games over .500 with a lot of ties in there. We were a sixth seed, but we were able to turn the switch because we knew we had a veteran group, we were deep, we believed, Just get in and we have a chance. Every team’s going to say the right things, but we connected the heart with the head. We knew we had an opportunity. We felt it. There was a quiet confidence in the locker room that, It’s time to turn the switch on, boys, if we want to get to where we were the season before and beyond. I think it started right out of the gate in the playoffs where we were really able to turn it up a notch. You win a round, you win a couple of rounds, and now we’re rolling. Then we get to the finals and we’re heavy underdogs against the mighty Detroit Red Wings. We didn’t say it to the press, but we were sitting in our locker room kind of snickering a little bit. We looked at both lineups and we were going, We’re not that far off. If you believe you’re beaten before you get in there because everybody’s telling you that–and that’s what the press was telling us–but we knew we had a special group. We didn’t expect to sweep Detroit, but we certainly thought we had as good a chance as them. We felt we were much more evenly matched than I think the experts said before the series.
Do you see that kind of potential with this year’s Devils?
I do. Any time you lose a Zach Parise everyone’s going to be down on you. Everyone’s going to say–and I think it’s already started–the Devils aren’t going to be the team they were last year. Not just because I played here 20 years and know what the organization’s about, but when you have that winning mentality like this organization has had for so many years, I don’t care who you put on the ice, you’ve got an edge. I talk about interchangeable parts because guys step in, know what to expect, know the system, know they have to produce here. It’s all about winning. That’s just a contagious thing, and not every organization has that. Fortunately for this team and the Devils (organization), they’ve had that for so many years. It’s a good place to be, everybody underestimating you and thinking you’re an underdog. That’s what they’re going to be coming into this season again. You have to play with a little chip on your shoulder saying, They’re not giving us respect for going to the Stanley Cup Final last year, but that’s a fine position to be in. Better than the so-called pressure of being a favorite. I think this team is going to respond just fine.