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Recalling the Great Judge Conte -- the Ultimate Devils Fan

Stan Fischler recalls memories of Devils superfan Judge John Conte, who passed away recently as a result of COVID-19

by Stan Fischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

Were it possible for a National Hockey League team to have its own "mayor," the New Jersey Devils choice for more than three decades would have to have been Judge John A. Conte.

The much respected jurist and attorney, an 82-year-old victim of the corona virus, was all things to all people who had the good fortune to know him.

"Judge Conte was a tremendous man who was loved and respected by everyone," said ex-Devils general manager and current Islanders president-GM Lou Lamoriello. 

"He and his family touched the lives of so many New Jersey Devils players over the years. The 'Judge' was a good friend to me personally. My heart reaches out to Lucille and the entire Conte Family."

Tweet from @brendanshanahan: Well said Dale. My deepest condolences to Lucille and the entire Conte family, that once housed rookies like Daneyko, Wolanin, Niedermayer and myself. @NJDevils fans will remember ���Judgie���, a sweet and gentle man, that appropriately sat right next to the penalty box for decades. https://t.co/P7OuNqFgXe pic.twitter.com/LfxLMC3T4n

"The judge was loved by everybody," former Devils goalie and current radio analyst Glenn (Chico) Resch once told me. "If you saw him at the games you'd say he was everybody's friend."

I readily can confirm that, knowing the judge and sharing laughs with him during our pre-game chats in the arena's private dining room just off the ice and penalty box. That was the hockey home for the Conte family.

Sitting in the dining room, minding my business, devouring my sushi, I would suddenly feel a pat on the back and then look up to see the judge dropping over for a "How are ya?" and a bit of a schmooze.

His family often sat at the next table and they'd wave a big "hello" at The Maven and that wholesome greeting would make me feel that everything was just right with the world -- at least until the opening face-off.

Before the first puck drop, Judge Conte and family would take their very special ice level seats next to the penalty box and, of course, root-root-root-for-the-home-team.

One unforgettable experience I shared with them took place on May 24, 2012 during the Devils most important victory against its most hated rival, the Rangers.

This was Game Six -- the eventual Adam Henrique OT clincher for New Jersey -- and just before the game, Resch said to me, "How about you stand with me behind Judge Conte and his family?"

I wondered if the judge and his company would mind. "Nah," said Resch,"I just don't get in their way or yell too loud."

The Judge welcomed us and we -- all of us had the same rooting interest in mind -- oohed and ahhed through three periods with still no decision. 

By that time I must have "excused me" a dozen times for bumping either Conte or one of his family members as I nervously moved back and forth behind the Conte's seats trying to make "saves" for Marty Brodeur. Now it was overtime.

"Don't worry about it," The Judge comforted me. "Let's just win the hockey game."

The sudden death period began and upstairs, Judge Conte's good pal, former Devils play-by-play man, Mike (Doc) Emrick was articulating the play. Suddenly, we all watched, mouth agape from the Conte ringside pew while Emrick thundered: 

   Scramble in front, they poke away at it. Still it's loose. Poked at by (Ilya) Kovalchuk...they score! (Adam) Henrique! It's over!"

When the red light flashed, I practically leaped on the Judge's back but he didn't mind. After all John was the number one Devils fan in New Jersey; he had a right.

But The Judge was more than that. In fact on Mother's Day, May 8, 1988, he was the team's most renowned -- yet unsung -- legal hero during the Bruins-Devils heart-throbbing series.

After the NHL had suspended coach Jim Schoenfeld for allegedly pushing referee Don Koharski ("Have another donut you fat pig!") the Devils attempted to reverse the decision via the courts before the game started.

Conte, then a Bergen County lawyer, represented the club before Bergen County Superior Court Judge John F. Madden. Attorney Conte accompanied GM Lou Lamoriello to Madden's home in Clffiside Park, New Jersey.

Among the decisive and eventually winning legal documents presented by Conte included the following:

"The referee, without warning to Plaintiff coach James Schoenfeld, pushed past him, and through use of threats and intimidations, caused a certain concern and anxiety among those in the area, and stumbled through no fault or cause of Plaintiff James Schoenfeld."

While Judge Conte made his case, the sell-out crowd at Byrne Arena patiently awaited word. Judge Madden made his decision at 7:20 p.m. Attorney Conte had won the case for the Devils. 

NHL on-ice officials then boycotted the decision and the game and were replaced by off-ice officials who had to wear yellow shirts for the first period because no striped uniforms were available. Hence, "Yellow Sunday."

If Devils players were overjoyed with Conte's legal work they merely were echoing the sentiments of former players such as Ken Daneyko and Brendan Shanahan who at one time or another boarded at Chateau Conte.

John and Lucille Conte treated the young players as if they were their very own kids. Other stickhandlers who were welcomed guests included defensemen Craig Wolanin and Scott Niedermayer.

Nor did you have to be a player to qualify for the Conte hostelry. Former Devils broadcaster Dale Arnold -- now a fixture in Boston -- remembers his warm stay there as well.

In a Tweet, Arnold wrote: "I lived across from Craig Wolanin. If you worked for or played for the New Jersey Devils, you knew Judge Conte, a veteran respected jurist and one of the finest people I've ever known."

Likewise, Toronto Maple Leafs boss Shanahan tweeted, "I will remember 'Judgie' as a sweet gentle man."

What more can one say about "The Mayor Of The Devils" other than they just didn't come any better than Judge John A. Conte!

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