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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: The First Milestone Season

Stan Fischler writes about the Devils first milestone season in his weekly NewJerseyDevils.com column

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

Nobody was expecting a Stanley Cup finalist when the New Jersey Devils took the ice in their maiden (1982-83) season at The Meadowlands.

Matter of fact, nobody knew quite what to expect but that first home game at Byrne Arena against the Pittsburgh Penguins filled every Garden State fan with a ray of winning sunshine.

Even media skeptics were compelled to eschew their normal negativism after one view of the new ice product.

"It was almost shocking," asserted the New York Post's normally acerbic Mark Everson. "The Devils were a tough hockey team and not a laughing stock. Most amazing of all, they didn't lose."

They didn't win either but the fact that Merlin (The Magician) Malinowski scored a come-from-behind tying goal in the third period was gratifying enough for the world premiere.

What's more the opening night crowd of 13,663 also whooped it up big-time for earlier goals by captain Don Lever -- the milestone first franchise goal -- and another by Hector Marini.

If there was a flash in the Devils' pan it wasn't apparent in the early going of 1982-83. Three games into the season Billy MacMillan's team was undefeated (1-0-2) with four points, only two out of first place.

They had beaten the Rangers, 3-2. on October 8, 1982 in the first installment of what would become a bitter feud. It even led to a book, "Battle On The Hudson" by Tim Sullivan.

"Beating the Rangers so soon was a surprisingly shining moment for the inaugural club," Sullivan remembered.

And who could forget the momentous counterattack from a 5-1 deficit to earn a tie with the Toronto Maple Leafs? Certainly not goalie Glenn (Chico) Resch. 

"It was so refreshing," said Resch. "I mean this happening so quickly to the franchise. Now the maturity of the team has to show."

Nobody was kidding coach Billy MacMillan. He'd been around the circuit long enough to perceive that his club's talent depth was on the shallow side. 

"Hey," MacMillan noted, "this (winning) isn't going to go on forever."

It didn't A 5-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens put the Devils on Skid Row en route to a 17-49-14 season. Owner Dr. John McMullen wasn't surprised. A man who could find humor in stones, Doc Mac offered a humorous squelch:

"When we lose I get letters from religious organizations. They say until you change the name of the Devils to the Angels, you'll keep on losing."

Give some of the writers -- particularly Walt McPeek of the Newark News --credit for staying on the laugh side of Route 3. Noting that the New Jersey roster was dotted with brothers of other NHL aces, McPeek observed:

"They've got the wrong Larmer (Jeff), the wrong Trottier (Rocky) and the wrong Broten (Aaron.)!"

When a reporter told McMullen that he should be pleased that he also is a "limited partner" of the ever-winning New York Yankees, the good doctor got a chuckle out of that, recalling that George Steinbrenner is majority owner.

"There's nothing so 'limited' as being a limited partner of Steinbrenner," snapped McMullen.

The Devils boss kept his cool and humor because good things still were happening on and off the ice. For one, Finnish defenseman Tapio Levo returned from Europe to give McMillan an offensive backliner.

Also, feisty forward Garry Howatt, who had two Stanley Cup ring for his Islanders playoff adventures, was obtained from the Hartford Whalers. The duet sang a beautiful aria one night against the Penguins at the Igloo in Pittsburgh.

Levo assisted on four goals in a wild, spectacular 6-5 decision capped by Hector Marini's game-winner with only 38 seconds remaining in the third period. 

Granted, there still were 75 games left on the Devils slate but optimism was the theme of the day. The reasons were five-fold in this rare, reality show on ice:

1. MARINI MAGIC: Hector had evolved into a clutch scorer.

2. LEVO LIFTING: Tapio's offense-from-defense proved a tonic.

3. GOOD-GET GLEN: Free agent surprise Glen Merkosky had become a playmaker de luxe.

4. RAPID RICKY: Newly acquired center Rick Meagher was a center who could backcheck and score.

5. BILLY BELIEVER: Coach McMillan had his players believing in themselves.

These assets still did not prove enough to sway many media types who grew up as Rangers rooter. One of them was WFAN radio talk show host Joe Benigno. 

Assessing the Devils in New Jersey's freshman season, Benigno asserted: "They were an annoyance at first, really. Nothing more."

Call it The Law of Averages; call it the opposition toughening up; whatever the labels, by the end of fall 1982, the Devils were in free fall, like Autumn Leaves.

"We're a little apprehensive," warned goalie Resch who had been spoiled by years of Islanders success.

By Christmas, angst was about the only gift under the Devils tree; and then it got worse. An eight-game winless streak in February 1983 erased any playoff hopes and by March 3, 1983, McMillan's brigade was one loss from elimination.

On that night the Flyers beat them 4-1 and New Jersey's playoff hopes evaporated like smoke rings in the air.

Still, the end of the playoff run did not mean the end of the world. After all, nobody really expected the first-year franchise to make the post-season in the first place.

Post Mortems went out the window as the high command looked to 1983-84 for redemption. Even goalie Glenn Resch, who. throughout the campaign had been bombarded in goal, managed to find good in a disappointing year.

"For me," Chico chuckled ironically, "the season was a chance for a shy person like me to be on stage!"

(NEXT WEEK: THE SECOND SEASON, 1983-84 -- DEVILS VS. THE GREAT GRETZKY)

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