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The Grand Blizzard Game

With the weather storming outside today, Stan Fischler looks back on the infamous game in New Jersey from 34 years ago

by Stan Fischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

The "crowd" of 334 at Brendan Byrne Arena had been warned; but the Devils-Flames game on the night of January 22, 1987 was more important to each and every one of them. Snow or no snow, they would show.

On that morning, the New Jersey-Metropolitan Area weather services predicted that a big-time blizzard would hit every place, from West New York to New York City. The populace was urged to stay home.

"We heard it might be a big one," said Calgary forward Lanny McDonald. "Being from Canada, we knew what a blizzard was all about. But we were staying at a hotel so close to the rink we didn't worry about the snow.'

Devils forward Peter McNab who grew up in the States, didn't give it a second thought. He owned a snow-friendly vehicle and knew he'd be needed by his coach Doug Carpenter. There were no ifs, ands or buts.

"That is," added McNab, "until it really started coming down."

It was 2 p.m. at my Upper West Side apartment when I gazed out of the window at Broadway and 110th Street. I wondered whether my buddy, SportsChannel tech-man Dave Katz, could reach Manhattan -- and me.

Katz was due at 3 p.m. and our SportsChannel production meeting was slated for 5 p.m. at the arena press room in East Rutherford.

At 2:45 p.m. I took another look at Broadway. My original fascination with the snowflakes now had turned to downright worry.

A mere five minutes later the phone rang. It was Katz: "I can't make it over the Brooklyn Bridge" he said. "Count me out for tonight."

Variations on the theme were heard among the thousands of fans who had tickets for the game. I said good-bye to my wife, Shirley, and crossed 110th Street. My Honda started immediately and I was off and driving.

"Until somebody told us different," said McNab, "the game was on and we had to figure a way of getting there."

The Flames spent the afternoon hanging out at their hotel, just a slapshot away from the arena parking lot.
 
"If we left the hotel early in our big team bus, I figured we could get to the rink," said Flames coach Badger Bob Johnson. "Like everyone else, I had to think the game was on since we were here and so were the Devils."

Not quite.

Video: The New Jersey Devils 334 Club

By 4 p.m. the snow was coming down so fast and furiously, Devils players wondered whether their assorted car caravans could plow through to the rink.

And what about the referee and his two linesmen? There could be no game without them. Then again, hypothetically, there could be a game but no spectators.

The box office officials had expected 11,247 fans if it were a clear January 22nd. By 4:30 p.m. the blizzard's intensity indicated that more than 22 inches would fall; twice that deep in drifts.

"What I wasn't ready for was all the abandoned cars that were stuck," said Doug Sulliman, a New Jersey forward. "I couldn't get on the ramp to go two miles to the Meadowlands. 

"What I had to do was go on to the other side of the road and I drove the whole way there in reverse. It was an adventure."

For Sulliman's teammate, Bruce Driver, it was easier because he was a stickler for punctuality. "I liked getting to the rink early so I left earlier than the other guys. I was at the rink at 4:30 p.m. for the 7:30 game.

"My wife was thinking about driving later to the game. I told her that she was nuts and I was right. She got stuck at the bottom of our driveway."

More typical were hazards experienced by McNab.

McNab: "I was stuck when an 18-wheeler turned over in front of the Lincoln Tunnel. Traffic on Route 3 was backed up forever. There was nowhere to go and I could see I wasn't going anywhere."

Peter got out of his car and discovered that -- through the falling snow -- he could see the outline of the arena a couple of miles away.

"I left my car there," McNab recalled, "gave my keys to a State Trooper and just walked through the snow until I got there. Believe it or not after the game the trooper came to the arena and gave our trainer my car keys."

By early evening all the visiting Flames were in their dressing room, suiting up for the game that they still weren't sure would be played. 

Devils coach Doug Carpenter was adamant that he wouldn't play the game until he had at least seventeen players in his room. Two defensemen and three key forwards still were missing.

Daneyko: "Me, Joe Cirella, Pat Verbeek, Kirk Muller and John MacLean left for the rink at around 3 p.m. We didn't get there until quarter to nine. We were the last group and they needed us to play."

Calgary boasted one of the NHL's most powerful teams. While the Flames were well-rested, most of the Devils were exhausted from their blizzard tribulations.

So were the NHL's on-ice officials who were necessary to police the game.

"I got on to the Turnpike," said NHL linesman Dan McCourt, "and the traffic stopped dead. By 7:30 p.m. I'm still sitting there. I didn't get to the rink until after 8 p.m. The Flames were there; not all the Devils."

While Flames coach Bob Johnson fidgeted in the Visitors' dressing room, his players exchanged jokes about the storm raging outside.

"It's funny," laughed Flames forward Jim Peplinski, "whenever I think of New Jersey I always remember that in good weather, our bus driver would get lost going to the arena every time.

"But today, in the midst of the storm, for once in a blue moon, he went straight and he got us there in plenty of time."

Meanwhile -- and to the astonishment of arena workers -- fans began to trickle through the turnstiles. One of them was Andy Martin who later would become the Devils team photographer.

Martin: "I worked in North Bergen -- close to the arena -- but thanks to the blizzard it took me three-and-a-half hours to go what normally would take ten minutes."

The SportsChannel crew members had come earlier in the day. Al Albert was our play-by-play man and I did the analysis. We were ready for a broadcast if there was going to be a game. It depended on the Devils.

Slowly, relentlessly, New Jersey players drifted in until there were 14. The Devils wanted to have a full roster. A few hid in the medical and stick rooms waiting for the rest of their teammates to arrive.

Meanwhile, the club's publicist, Larry Brooks -- later to become the longtime Post hockey columnist -- noticed there were at least 300 or more fans in the seats. 

With pad in hand, Brooks got the names and addresses of all the rooters. The total came to 334. Later Larry would send a letter to every one of them with thanks for their dedication.

In time, the franchise organized a "334 Club" and honored those who braved the blizzard. Souvenirs, tickets and a dinner were among the prizes.

One of those diehard fans who took on the storm -- and won -- was Jeep-owner Jo Anne Lambert. She and co-rider-fellow-Devils fan Ray Henry began their expedition in Glen Rock.

"Once we got going," said Lambert, "we could see what we were in for and driving would be tough. Cars were stuck, buses were stopped but we kept going and eventually made it. We had a great time."

Their succssful escapade was rewarded when the teams finally took the ice for the pre-game skate and, eventually, the opening face-off.

Sulliman: "When we reached the ice I looked around and there was hardly anyone in the stands. Not even music playing. It was eerie; like a beer-league game."

Meanwhile, the team put a coda on it all by defeating the Flames 7-5. 

Sulliman, who drove his car backwards on the highway to reach the rink, had a career night with a hat trick and two assists.

"We used to kid Dougie that he was a 'practice player,'" chuckled Daneyko. "He proved it because there were about the same number of people at the game as we'd get for a practice.

"Kidding aside, those who showed up were proud, loyal Devils fans. Despite the snow disaster, they weren't going to miss it for the world. I always appreciated those fans."

A fan appreciation dinner was hosted by the team in 2012, the 25th anniversary of The Blizzard Game. Some of the talk was about the players adopting the Broadway theme, "The show must go on!."

Up in Canada, someone asked Lanny McDonald his thoughts, looking backward to that night in 1987.

"We felt we had to go ahead and play," Lanny smiled, "and we did. But I'm not sure how."

His teammate, Jim Peplinski, remembered the theme of other workers who , as part of their jobs, are burdened by blizzards and sleet.

"Those 334 fans who showed up," Peplinski concluded, "should have been in the U.S. Postal Service!"

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