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Yogi Berra provided inspiration for Devils title teams

by Shawn Roarke

The impact Yogi Berra had on the sport of baseball, and specifically the New York Yankees, is well-known. The impact he had on the New Jersey Devils is not as well-known, but is just as compelling in its own way.

Lawrence Peter Berra, 90, died Tuesday night. He was the catcher and the heart and soul of the dynastic Yankees, winning 10 World Series titles during a career that put him in baseball's Hall of Fame.

He was also a major supporter of the Devils upon their arrival in New Jersey, a relationship that began through his friendship with Dr. John McMullen, the Devils' former owner, and continued for more than 30 years.

In fact, some past Devils believe Berra played no small part in helping the team become mentally strong enough to win the Stanley Cup three times from 1995 to 2003.

"Anybody that hangs around your room that wins 10 championships, all those little things help and I think it was a big influence for us Devils to see him around," said Ken Daneyko, a defenseman on each of those three title-winning teams. "I always like to call him our good luck charm. If there was a guy that knew about winning, it was Yogi Berra. I would like to think a little bit of his winning and his pedigree rubbed off on us to fortunately win some championships as well."

When McMullen owned the Devils, from 1982 through 2000, he often worked out at the team's practice facility at South Mountain Arena in West Orange, N.J. He usually arrived early in the morning before practice and was regularly joined by Berra, who lived in nearby Montclair. Occasionally, Berra came alone, as well.

After practice, Berra would often sit on a couch in the players' lounge and enjoy the company of the players.

"A lot of us were baseball fans, I was a huge baseball fan, am a huge baseball fan," Daneyko said Wednesday. "So, it was kind of eye-opening as a young kid getting to go in your locker room and seeing the great and iconic Yogi Berra. It was a 'Wow!' moment."

Lou Lamoriello, the Devils general manager at the time who now holds the same position with the Toronto Maple Leafs, recalled how special it was that he and his team were able to spend time around Berra.

"When you think of Yogi Berra and then you get a young rookie in [the dressing room] and they say to their dad, 'Today, Yogi Berra was in the room,'" Lamoriello said Wednesday. "Can you imagine the feeling that was transmitted from the parent to the son about who he was and how much he won and what it was to win championships? So, the next time you see him, you are in awe. That awe sort of just helps you feel, this is just a regular person. We loved having him in the room. He would sit on the couch just like the players would, having a cup of coffee. If you were a stranger coming in and you didn't know who he was, you'd think he worked there.

"I do not know of anyone that has more success than him and be respected and have as much humility as he had. He did not want people to make a fuss over him. It was just incredible to experience that because no matter where he went, he was an icon and never once did he put anyone aside. He handled everything with grace."

Berra loved the sport of hockey, having been introduced to it during his youth in St. Louis and following it more deeply after his retirement from baseball.

"He was a fan," Lamoriello said. "He really loved the game and followed it."

He especially loved the Devils, who represented his adopted home state and the sporting passion of his good friend Dr. McMullen.

"He rooted for us dearly and we loved that," Daneyko said. "We thought if we got Yogi Berra rooting for us, we can't lose."

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