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John MacLean played 934 games for the New Jersey Devils from 1983-1997. The winger was there for the worst of years, and the best of years, and he helped make them the best of years: Scoring the overtime goal against the Chicago Blackhawks to put the Devils in the playoffs for the first time in 1988, and scoring 18 points in 20 games during their 1995 Stanley Cup win.
As the Devils celebrate their 1995 championship this weekend, we spoke with MacLean about that run, coach Jacques Lemaire, some of his colorful teammates, the trap, the Neal Broten trade, Lou Lamoriello and having parade in the parking lot. Enjoy!
Q. You had your share of coaches in New Jersey. What was it like when Jacques Lemaire came strolling in?
MACLEAN: The timing was perfect. And he had the right guy in Larry Robinson as his assistant – legitimate respect right off the bat. Jacques had a tremendous understanding of the game, and we were hungry to learn the nuances. Make the commitment to try and win.
You were a goal scorer. A lot of other guys on the team, like Stephane Richer and Claude Lemieux, were snipers. Was it tough to put that aside and play the trap?
See, there you go. You go right for the trap. (Laughs)
I don’t mind calling it the trap. Everyone else calls it that. But it’s more about understanding the positioning of the team. Understanding positioning on the ice. I think it gets overshadowed that we put up some numbers. We could score goals as much as anybody. But we understood positioning as much as anybody, and we played transition hockey better than anybody. We outscored Detroit pretty good in that series.
We took great pride in that. We said we learned a lesson losing in 1994, and I think Detroit learned a lesson playing us. They started to worry a little bit more about their defensive game. That’s where it starts. Everyone talks about Steve Yzerman transitioning from being a great offensive player to being a great all around player.
How much did losing to the Rangers in 1994 hurt? You were one of the guys who had previously lost in the conference final in 1988.
The 1988 team was a little bit more of a Cinderella story than 1994. It was disappointing, but we knew we were very close to getting over the hump. It’s a process you go through before you get the Final and actually win. We used it as an education.
We had a little extra time in 1995 with the lockout. That helped us process it. We didn’t have an unbelievable regular season, but we understood what we needed to do when we got back to that point. To make the sacrifices we needed to make to get the win.
You found instant chemistry with Neal Broten when he was acquired; what were your thoughts when Lou made the move?
It was the final piece to the puzzle. It was Corey Millen that went for him, and he had a good career as well. But Brotzy was the perfect guy for us at that time. We needed an offensive player, and he was a 200-foot player. We killed penalties together, did the power play. We needed to upgrade our skill, and that’s what he did.
He not only upgraded out skill, but also our speed. He was an older guy, but he could skate. He’s probably one of the most underrated … you know, you say “underrated” and the guy won the Hobey Baker, was one of the greatest U.S. players ever to play. But he played during an era with some of the greatest players of all time: Gretzky, Lemieux, Hawerchuk, Francis. He was unassuming and very effective.
People forget that you were 5-13=18 in the Cup run. You went from one of the team’s top goal scorers to more of an assist guy.
Pepe [Lemieux] scored a lot that year. We were a pretty balanced hockey team. You don’t realize it at the time, but we had different guys scoring goals. The one thing for Jacques was that he maneuvered us well, around the lineup. I played with Brotzy but he’s also have me with Bobby Carpenter. The top six maneuvered a lot.
Colin Campbell infamously called you “an interchangeable flock of forwards” while he coached the Rangers.
And that’s a compliment. I think that’s a testament to our hockey IQ. A lot of guys can’t do that.
What was life like as Claude Lemieux’s teammate?
[Laughs] It was fun.
He’s a good person. We liked him on our team. But the biggest thing with our team and the characters that we had, we always had good practices. We always would battle. Scotty Stevens set the tone, but that always set the tone for the games.
Had you ever seen anything like the Crash Line before?
They were tremendous. We call them the Crash Line, but we don’t give them enough credit for the hockey players they were. But you look at it now, and you can’t win the Stanley Cup if you can’t have four lines. That was the first time anyone had talked about the contributions of the line. We called it the Crash Line or the fourth line, but they were just a line. Darryl Sutter just said it recently: If your fourth line is playing six minutes a night, you ain’t a Stanley Cup winner.
Those guys played minutes.
I wonder in this analytics era what their puck possession numbers would have been?
That was the biggest thing. Their forechecking. They cycled the puck as much as anybody. You could not get the puck from Bobby Holik. He would hang on as long as we wanted. And Mike Peluso was on the puck first every time. Randy McKay too. They wore down the other team.
The entire playoff run was something special, the chemistry all of you had. I heard Lou put you guys in a hotel for the home games?
He did that in 1988 too, during the last part of the season. Lou tries to take as many distractions away from the players as possible, so we can focus in and play the game. You understand when you go through that run that there are distractions. But it was successful for us.
But some of you guys found a way out of there to go to a local watering hole, right? Did you think Lou knew?
[Laughs] I don’t know about that. But I know that when we showed up for work, we were always ready. We put the team first. That’s all Lou cared about.
Against the Red Wings, you scored in every game.
It was a special thing to be able to contribute to our run. But it was a 23-man contribution. Everybody there felt a part of it and contributed. That’s a fun thing.
What was the vibe playing Detroit? Were you intimidated?
We were quietly confident in our abilities. Not many teams intimidated us with the lineup that we had. We could play whatever style we needed to play. We certainly weren’t going to get intimidated physically.
Was there one moment in the series that was the crushing blow for Detroit?
The Scott Niedermayer goal and the Scott Stevens hit.
I give Kozlov so much credit for coming back from the hit. But that intensity on Scotty’s face when he tells the Detroit bench “you’re next!” You’ll notice there wasn’t anyway around him, in case we got caught up in it.
You and Bruce Driver and Ken Daneyko were the longest tenured Devils. What was it like to have endured all those years of losing and then finally winning the Cup?
It’s funny. People forget that although the Devils are a great organization now, it wasn’t always that way. We were there for that. They hung onto us for that long. We saw the team hit the bottom, and we saw the team hit the top. We were really lucky.
What’s it been like for you, thinking about your legacy with the Devils. You scored the goal that put them in the playoffs in 1988. But you requested a trade, you played with the Rangers and your coaching stint with the team was really brief. Do you think all that affected your standing with Devils fans, and you legacy?
That’s not for me to decide. I’m very proud of my time with the Devils and my accomplishments. I consider myself a Devil. This is a game. This is a business. But Jersey’s my home. Other people can figure it out, but I’m happy and I don’t look into that other stuff.
Finally, what was it like holding a parade in the parking lot of the Meadowlands?
It was us. And we miss that building. We had a nice family there, with fond memories. It was more intimate. That’s what the organization was then. I could pick out people in the stands every game. It was the perfect setting for our parade.
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