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Devils icons mourn Judge Conte, 'great man' who died from coronavirus

Niedermayer, Daneyko among players billeted by fan, who was 83

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

Ken Daneyko received a text with the bad news Tuesday morning.

Longtime New Jersey Devils fan and Bergen County Superior Court Judge John A. Conte died Monday from the coronavirus. He was 83.

"He was a great man," Daneyko, a former Devils defenseman, said. "I really loved him. He was a super guy and his whole family is."

Conte, his wife, Lucille, and their children are like family to Daneyko. The Contes invited Daneyko to live with them when he was a 19-year-old rookie in 1983, beginning a tradition of Devils rookies billeting at their home in Mahwah, New Jersey.

Daneyko, now a Devils and NHL Network analyst, was followed by defenseman Craig Wolanin and eventual Hockey Hall of Famers Brendan Shanahan and Scott Niedermayer. They each remained close with Conte and his family, so his death gave them a personal connection to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It makes it real very quick," Niedermayer said.

A season ticket holder from the inaugural New Jersey season of 1982-83, Conte was a fixture at Devils games, in recent seasons in the family seats next to the penalty box at Prudential Center. Former goalie Glenn "Chico" Resch, an original Devils player and current radio analyst, recalls Conte having almost celebrity status among the players.

"Everyone knew that this judge, which was a big deal for us, was a big fan and his family were big fans," Resch said. "I remember they had us over to their house. They had a nice house with a tennis court. I remember he had a big party up there. I played with the (New York) Islanders, and we never had a party at a fan's house.

"But the judge was just like everyone describes. I would say he was like the Jean Beliveau of fans in that he was so approachable, always had a smile."

Daneyko's relationship with Conte began after he broke his leg 11 games into the 1983-84 season. Daneyko was living in a hotel, so Conte invited him over for dinner. With Conte's son, John Jr., and daughters Jennifer and Meryl there, Daneyko got his first taste of what it was like to be part of the family. So when Conte asked if he wanted to live with them, he immediately agreed.

"I thought it was a great idea," Daneyko said. "I knew I was going to get some great Italian home cooking, and, little did I know, I'd find a second family as far as treating me like gold."

Niedermayer, the No. 3 pick in the 1991 NHL Draft, had a similar experience living with the Contes as an 18-year-old at the start of the 1991-92 season and again in 1992-93.

"Just the support they gave me when I would come home and different things like that as a young guy, that's pretty powerful to have people in your corner that you can do no wrong," the defenseman said. "Even if the coach wasn't happy, you'd come back and they were in your corner the whole time. We were [in New Jersey] a couple months ago and we saw them a few times. We watched the Super Bowl with them and, even then, Judge and his wife, they were still in our corner supporting us, wanting us to be well."

In addition to the players, Conte welcomed Dale Arnold, the Devils radio play-by-play announcer from 1986-88, as a house guest during the 1986-87 season. With his wife, Susan, remaining in Maine with their son, Taylor, following the death of her father, Arnold lived in a hotel until Conte found out.

"He said, 'Look, we've got a room. Why don't you come live with us?'" said Arnold, now host of Boston Bruins telecasts on NESN. "So I moved in across the hall from Craig Wolanin. ... The judge and Lucille and the kids, with Kenny and Craig and Brendan and everybody else, they adopted us. They brought us into the family and treated us like one of their kids."

After Arnold and Wolanin moved out, Shanahan moved in for the 1987-88 season. The No. 2 pick in the 1987 NHL Draft, Shanahan lived with a billet family while playing for London in the Ontario Hockey League, but the 18-year-old forward was apprehensive about living with a judge.

"It was a little scary and intimidating," Shanahan said. "Then you meet him and he's this happy, giggly, jovial sort of huggable guy that you sort of see it the first time you meet him, the first time you hear his voice. That's sort of how he was remembered by everybody."

Shanahan, now president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, used to try to get Conte to talk about his work but had no success. In fact, Shanahan said he didn't know Conte played a pivotal role in one of the most memorable incidents in Devils history until reading about it much later. 

After the NHL suspended coach Jim Schoenfeld for an altercation with referee Don Koharski following Game 3 of the 1988 Wales Conference Final against the Bruins, the Devils sought a court injunction to allow Schoenfeld to coach Game 4, arguing that he was suspended without a hearing. Lou Lamoriello, in his first season as Devils general manager, asked Conte for help.

"I called the judge and said, 'How can I proceed with this?'" Lamoriello said. "He gave me a recommendation and took me to where I had to go to get it done.'"

With Conte's assistance, the Devils got the injunction and won Game 4 3-1 to even the best-of-7 series. Following a hearing, Schoenfeld was suspended for Game 5 at Boston, and New Jersey lost 7-1 on its way to losing the series in seven games.

But the experience brought Lamoriello and Conte closer as friends. Conte was one of the first people Lamoriello met in New Jersey when he became Devils GM in 1987. After hearing about Conte's experiences with Danekyo and Wolanin, Lamoriello called the judge to see if he would take in Shanahan too.

"What made him so special was everybody liked him and respected him," said Lamoriello, now GM of the Islanders. "I've always said you look at people who you can like but not respect, or you respect and not like, but you've got a pretty good human being when you like them and respect them, and that was Judge Conte. I always called him Judge."

Everyone did. And Conte made everyone feel like family. That's why his relationships with those he shared his home with endured. Shanahan invited Conte and his wife to his wedding in 1998 and received a card from them on St. Patrick's Day every year, including this one.

When Niedermayer was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013, a large contingent of the judge's family made the trip to Toronto for the ceremony.

"I can't even remember how many, but there was probably maybe eight of them at least," Niedermayer said. "They've been out to California to visit. Their grandkids, a few of them, have been out to visit. We've become really good friends with the whole family, and it's made our lives that much better to get to know the Conte clan."

Which made it sadder that no one in Conte's family could be with him at the hospital when he died, out of precaution against spreading the coronavirus.

"The biggest injustice is that he's gone," Shanahan said. "But after that, for somebody who lived his life with so much family and kept growing his family and adding people to it, to not be surrounded by all of us and to not be able to celebrate his life with all of us is what makes what's going on in the world right now, first, unfair, but adds insult to injury."

Arnold said Conte's family intends to hold a celebration of his life, hopefully, in a few months when it's safe to hold large gatherings again. 

"I promise you all of us will be there," Arnold said. "Wolanin will be there and Brendan and all of us will be there. Judge would have wanted us to have this big get-together and we'll eat pasta and we'll drink wine and it will be a gigantic Italian get-together."

Resch suggested that Conte's impact on the Devils warrants them honoring him by wearing patches with his initials on their jerseys when the NHL resumes play after the pandemic is under control. Conte and his family were there for the Devils through the lean early seasons and celebrated with them when they won the Stanley Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003.

Daneyko wishes he could be there for them now.

"Just a great family, part of the Devils family from Day One," Daneyko said. "My heart breaks for them because I know what the judge meant to them."

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