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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: The Birth of Hockey in Jersey

Stan Fischler writes about the start of hockey in New Jersey for his first installment of his weekly NewJerseyDevils.com column

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

Long, long before the Devils played their first game at Brendan Byrne Arena in The Meadowlands, the seeds of high-grade hockey had been planted in The Garden State.

A primitive version of hockey was played by Native Americans using tree branches for sticks and makeshift "skates" that never could be authorized by the National Hockey League.

A more modern model of the ice game achieved popularity late in the 19th century thanks to the invention of a refrigeration plant. That guaranteed artificial ice in covered rinks enabled universities such as Princeton to deliver a high-quality team.

In 1900 Princeton -- along with Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale -- became a member of the Intercollegiate Hockey League. The Tigers captured their first championship in 1907 but the best was yet to come.

When Hobart (Hobey) Baker gained a spot on Princeton's roster in 1910, the university's sextet became the scourge of the East. The gifted and creative Baker was considered the first outstanding player developed in the United States.

After Hobey led the Tigers to titles in 1912 and 1913, The Boston Herald noted: "Baker is without a doubt the greatest amateur hockey player ever developed in this country or Canada."

What lifted Baker to a niche higher than any other stickhandler of that era was his multiplicity of talents. His speed was unmatched by any competitor and his "hockey sense" had that special Wayne Gretzky quality of knowing where the puck would be before anyone else.

Boston Herald: "No player has been able to weave in or out of a defense and change his pace and direction with the uncanny generalship of Baker. He is the wonder player of hockey. And above all, he is extremely clean in his work on the ice -- he believes that rough stuff has no place in the game."

Hobey brought more honors to New Jersey hockey than any player in his era. After graduation, he filled Manhattan's St. Nicholas Arena as a member of the famed St.Nicholas Hockey Club, skating against the best teams invading from Canada.

Baker became an aviator in World War I, winning a French Croix de Guerre for exceptional valor under fire. Just a month after hostilities ceased in November 1918 Hobey took a plane up for a spin but died in an ensuing crash.

Princeton memorialized its hero with the construction of the Hobey Baker Rink when the Tigers began practicing in 1922. Although Princeton produced powerful teams in the late 1920s its next championship club didn't win a pennant until 1941 when the Tigers topped the Quadrangle League.

Arena-wise, the biggest breakthrough in the state took place in 1929 when the Atlantic City Convention Hall opened adjacent to the city's Boardwalk. In the early 1930s the Atlantic City Sea Gulls became a member of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, (EAHL), a feeder circuit to the NHL.

A benefit game during The Great Depression drew a crowd of more than 20,000 to see the NHL Rangers play the Sea Gulls. Later in the 1930s promoter John Handwerg built an arena in suburban River Vale, New Jersey.

Nicknamed the River Vale Skeeters, the club featured Roy (Red) Storey, who later would make headlines as an NHL referee. The River Vale Arena also was the site of Hall of Fame referee Bill (The Big Whistle) Chadwick's first game as an on-ice official.

Following World War II new rinks emerged in various parts of New Jersey including the city of West New York. Its arena featured bizarre (128 by 108 feet) dimensions that once moved beer league player Ira Gitler to remark that "If you're playing hockey in West New York, it was best to be a forward!"

Minor pro hockey eventually bloomed in Cherry Hill and Haddonfield while the rink at Brick Township was where Devils' 1995 Stanley Cup hero Jim Dowd learned to stickhandle.

A poor man's version of the big-league game was seen at Cherry Hill Arena in 1974 when the New York Golden Blades of the World Hockey Association went belly up at its original Madison Square Garden home and relocated under the sobriquet New Jersey Knights.

Cherry Hill's rink was notorious for the unevenness of its ice surface which rose to a hill at its center and then tapered off at each side.

 "It was," said Hall of Famer Bobby Hull who then skated for the WHA's Winnipeg Jets, "one of the most bizarre rinks I ever had the displeasure of skating on; and I've been on some lulus."

Not long after the WHA evaporated -- sending four teams to the NHL -- ice roots sprouted in a former marsh called The Meadowlands. A goliath rink would grow and be dubbed the Byrne Meadowlands Arena.

In time the result would be The Garden State's first major professional team. The National Hockey League would deliver a hearty welcome to the New Jersey Devils!

(NEXT WEEK: HOW THE DEVILS EMERGED FROM KANSAS CITY AND DENVER)

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