How do you build a new hockey team?
That was the sizzling question confronting Devils owner Dr. John McMullen after the NHL approved the transfer of Denver's franchise to The Meadowlands.
While figuring out where to put the building blocks, Doc Mac was compelled to pay an unprecedented NHL transfer fee because, as he put it, "The alternative was no team."
Always handy with a quip, Dr. McMullen added: "It's like deciding what's better than not being alive?"
The good doctor was very much alive and so was the potential Devils fan base. A year before his team arrived in East Rutherford, Dr. McMullen watched 18,123 fans jam Byrne Arena for an exhibition game between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
"That convinced me that there were enough hockey fans around to support a team in New Jersey," McMullen insisted. And he was right.
New Jersey's new owner knew all about developing a franchise based on his success running Major League Baseball's Houston Astros.
"The good thing about John McMullen," wrote Larry Brooks in the New York Post, "is that he has a track record running a sports franchise."
McMullen was enthused about the Philly-Rangers game which drew the largest crowd ever to watch an NHL pre-season game. The hope, of course, was that the Garden State's first major league team would do as well.
But there were more immediate priorities to confront; like giving the team a name. Management took that hint after the New York Post ran a headline: N.J. ROCKIES NEED LOTS OF HELP.
Actually assistance was found in the front office where veteran NHL executive -- former player with the Detroit Red Wings -- Max McNab was installed as Vice President In Charge of Hockey Operations.
McNab was followed by 39-year-old Billy MacMillan who accepted the dual role as general manager and coach. Finding and mentoring good players would be MacMillan's biggest challenge, along with Billy's sidekick, Director of Player Personnel, Bert Marshall.
"Our fans in New Jersey will be tolerant for a few years," McMullen explained. "In time we should be able to improve ourselves."
One improvement was a contest to name the team and after a large number of possibilities were considered the winning entry was Devils. With that vital bit of business accomplished, next up was the annual NHL Entry Draft in June 1982.
Having the eighth pick, the Devils selected Rocky Trottier, the 18-year-old kid brother of future Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, the Islanders versatile center.
In a sense, the pick was logical, Bryan Trottier had just celebrated his third straight Stanley Cup with the Nassaumen and would win yet another in 1983 Rocky seemed to have several of his older brother's qualities.
"I knew there's going to be pressure from people comparing me to Bryan," said Rocky. "But there's nothing I can do about that."
As luck would have it, the Devils second selection -- and 18th overall pick -- would prove more valuable in both the short, long and even longest term. That would be defenseman Ken Daneyko. Another gem was the club's third choice, center Pat Verbeek.
"Patty could be the biggest surprise of them all," MacMillan enthused. "He's hard-nosed and very mature." Time would prove that MacMillan was very right about Verbeek. Meanwhile, former Vancouver Canucks ace Don Lever was anointed the franchise's first captain.
"We weren't sure about the talent level," said McMullen, "but we'd find out soon enough."
More evidence would be available at training camp, held at Ice World rink in Totowa, New Jersey on September 11, 1982. One by one a stickhandling and goaltending core streamed in from various venues in North America. Some were known; others a mysterious bunch.
More easily recognized were defenseman Bob Lorimer and goalie Glenn (Chico) Resch each of whom were wearing Stanley Cup rings for their heroics on Long Island.
Among the more promising youngsters, there were defenseman Joe Cirella -- a future New Jersey hero -- as well as forwards Aaron Broten and Steve Tambellini.
Resch, who had been traded from the Islanders to Colorado in 1981, became an instant training camp favorite because of his ability to schmooze the media. When a newsman asked how he'd feel playing for New Jersey, he had the perfect squelch:
"I guess if I let in a bad goal, I can shake it off by saying 'The Devil made me do it.'"
In a more serious mood, Chico candidly blamed the Colorado management for producing a weak team.
Resch: "They made bad moves. Many of the mistakes were because of pressure from the former ownership. There were a lot of panic moves made in an attempt to produce an instant winner. Now we're moving in a positive direction.
"The only way to accomplish anything in this game is by drafting blue-chip players and being patient with them. Right now, I'd say we need help offensively. We're simply not going to win many games by scoring only a couple of goals a game."
To just about everyone's surprise, MacMillan's Devils did win their very first game. Granted it was only an exhibition against the Washington Capitals but the 3-1 final verdict on September 17, 1982 was an instant confidence-builder.
"This is a nice, positive way to start a new franchise," coach MacMillan smiled.
Next up were the Rangers and if the nascent New Jersey franchise needed a vibrant, verbal boost, McMullen -- a decorated U.S. Navy hero -- fired a torpedo in the direction of the Good Ship Blueshirt.
"I believe we're going to be a lot more aggressive than the Rangers," Doc Mac warned. "They're complacent because they're sold out."
The catalytic blast didn't sink the staid New York franchise but it did produce a reaction which best was expressed by a New York Post headline: RANGERS ANGRY OVER MCMULLEN'S REMARK.
John laughed off the Manhattan whining and insisted that he merely wanted his skaters to outplay the 56-year-old franchise from across the Hudson.
That they did -- almost.
Merlin Malinowski beat goalie Steve Baker twice but the New Yorkers got three and tunneled home with a 3-2 advantage.
Meanwhile, MacMillan accented the positive when it came to his rookie defenseman Daneyko. "He played with poise," the coach remarked. "We used him in every situation and he handled himself well. So did Pat Verbeek."
The final opportunity to beef up the lineup arrived just before the season's opener when a Waiver Draft was held. Additions included onetime Cup-winning defenseman Carol Vadnais as well as Murray Brumwell and Dave Hutchison.
Now it was time to drop the puck for real. New Jersey's NHL World Premiere would feature the Pittsburgh Penguins against the new Garden State stickhandlers at Byrne Arena.
Some of the Devils were nervous; others were relaxed while goalie Chico Resch was most grateful for his latest opportunity.
"I look at this way," Glenn explained. "Playing hockey is the only job I know of where you get paid to take a nap the day of the game!"
As the Penguins would discover, the baby franchise did no napping on opening night.
NEXT WEEK: THAT FIRST MILESTONE SEASON IN NEW JERSEY