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Ten Thousand Miles to Prudential Center: The Story of One Fan

by Gordy Stillman / New Jersey Devils
Posing for a picture, Damian Winderlich meets N.J. Devil at the last game of a six game home stand in February. For the last few years, Winderlich has traveled all the way from Australia to see his favorite team. Photo by Courtney Gfroerer

For many Devils fans, traveling to a game does not cover a particularly long distance. Fans in Sparta have about 35 miles each way, while season ticket holders in West Milford do 80 miles in a round trip. Even the most dedicated Devils fans in Southern New Jersey can do it in a couple of hours. But there’s one fan whose travel utterly dwarfs any of those distances.

Meet Damian Winderlich, of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Winderlich travelled about 10,000 miles to see his favorite hockey team in person during the Devils’ six-game home stretch in February. The 33-year-old taxation administrator traveled twice the distance that some European fans might go to see players like the Czech Republic’s Patrik Elias, Finland’s Tuomo Ruutu or Sweeden’s Adam Larsson, and that’s without any fellow Australians on the team.

Winderlich’s Devils fandom grew out of what might be called random chance. “About 20 years ago I was into video games and got into videogame-hockey. Back then, I was listening to Bon Jovi…because I knew Bon Jovi was from New Jersey, when it came to pick a team [New Jersey Devils] was the only name I recognized.”

Eventually Winderlich made the move from playing the virtual game to watching it on TV. “I thought ‘well, I already have a team’ and I stuck with the Devils,” Winderlich recalls.

That first videogame to introduce Winderlich to hockey, and by extension the New Jersey Devils, was NHL ’94. An influential sports game that launched features like the slapshot, goalie control and more, it was famously programmed by a man with no prior hockey knowledge. In 2013, with Martin Brodeur on the cover, EA’s NHL ’14 featured a throwback mode to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ’94.

Winderlich has been travelling to the U.S. on his vacations to see the Devils in person since 2010. On his first trip he followed the team on a west coast stretch, catching games in all three California arenas. When he learned the Devils would be playing in the Stadium Series last year, Winderlich began searching for a way to attend. Chatting with fellow Devils fans through social media—his twitter handle is @newjerseydamo—he eventually met season ticket holder Colin Menchin. Winderlich went with Menchin to Yankee Stadium and a friendship based upon mutual love for the Devils began.

Over this season’s six-game home stand, Windlerlich even stayed with Menchin and his fiancée. “When the schedule came out for this season, I saw the six home stand games, and I thought it was the perfect time… six games in a couple of weeks.”

Even though the Stadium Series game last season was a 7-3 loss to the Rangers, Winderlich described it as an unforgettable experience. “It’s one of those ‘once-in-a-lifetime, you never forget’ sort of moments. I have been to Yankee Stadium for baseball, but to watch hockey and the Devils is pretty special.”

Winderlich has done more than just come to games, he also has amassed a collection of hooded sweatshirts, t-shirts, signed pucks and other memorabilia. He explained how winter in Australia can be chilly, but warm enough that a sweatshirt will suffice, though Winderlich joked that he enjoys the colder winter weather here. “People call me crazy for going to the cold weather and all that, but I love it.”

Season ticket holder Colin Menchin and super fan Damian Winderlich pose for a picture along the glass before the Devils' February 25 game. Menchin and Winderlich became friends before last season's stadium series, and Menchin hosted Winderlich on his trip to New Jersey this year. Photo by Courtney Gfroerer

When he came to the February 27 game against the Boston Bruins, Winderlich was sporting a jersey signed by seven different Devils, including Scott Gomez, Stephen Gionta, Peter Harrold and Cory Schneider.

Getting the signatures wasn’t always easy. “I’ve been pretty lucky,” he said. With Menchin, Winderlich was able to attend a season ticket holder event and get a few autographs, including a couple of the signatures on his jersey.

Almost every fan has a favorite player, and in Winderlich’s case it’s Adam Henrique. Winderlich explained that he’s a fan of Henrique because of his work ethic, saying his intensity and effort feels similar to his favorite former Devil, Zach Parise. “[Henrique’s] always working hard. Cammalleri is similar…they work hard and they help the team.”

Without knowing the 2015-16 NHL schedule, there’s no guessing when Winderlich will make his next trip to The Rock, but for this super fan, it’s only a matter of time before he’s back.

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