(Ed. Note: The New Jersey Devils are honoring the 1995 Stanley Cup Champions this weekend, the first Cup in the franchise’s history. I make no secret I’m a Devils fan, having grown up one in Central New Jersey. My father and I attended Game 4 of the Cup Final at Brendan Byrne Arena, sitting in the nosebleeds to see them sweep the Detroit Red Wings. The following was from a long-gestating book project about the Devils, and captures our experience that night. Enjoy!)
In the three-plus decades my parents have lived in a classic colonial house overlooking Lake Lefferts in the suburban New Jersey town of Matawan – infamous for a Great White Shark attack over a century ago, diminished when neighboring Aberdeen usurped its name on the local train station signage – Bob Wyshynski has had three mainstays of makeshift décor in their kitchen:
- An annual calendar, with yellow highlighter filling each day as it passes and meticulous notes detailing births, deaths, anniversaries, vacations, bowel movements and reruns of “Doctor Who.”
- Post-It Notes filled with names, parenthetical descriptions and phone numbers, because my father’s always had the memory capacity of a newborn goldfish.
- A plastic sleeve filled with blank New Jersey Lottery forms whose numbered squares he’d color in, take to the local deli and play every week.
When it came to the lottery, my father won about as often as the 1975 Kansas City Scouts (12 wins, 80 games). His financial gains hardly offset his weekly investment, but such logic has no home when the state’s hypnotic motto “YA GOTTA BE IN IT TO WIN IT” is ping-ponging through one’s brain.
(The alternate slogan “OR YOU COULD JUST ROLL UP $10 AND SMOKE IT EVERY WEEK” apparently never having caught on.)
I remember two of his victories distinctly, because they both were to my benefit, and true to my father’s form, to his as well. The first was when I was about eight years old and his winnings manifested into an Atari 2600, a magical box whose rudimentary graphics were the pinnacle of home video gaming at the time. Granted, one of the first games my father purchased with the system was the decidedly adult-oriented “CASINO”, but I was so busy happily pretending a slowly moving white square was a dragon-slaying knight that I didn’t notice his hidden motives.
The second victory was in June 1995. My father won $2,000 on a Pick Four and promptly did what any hockey fan would do, which is blow a quarter of it on blind optimism.
To paraphrase Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises”: I was born into the New Jersey Devils; my father merely adopted them. Like any kid in Brooklyn during the 1960s, his first NHL team was the New York Rangers. When the Islanders were born, his allegiances shifted, an early rider on a bandwagon that’d get ‘New Years Eve In Times Square’ crowded during the dynasty.
But he married a Jersey girl, moved to the Garden State, and gravitated to the Devils when his beautiful young son – with long eyelashes and a rapier wit, according to “Hockey Night In Canada’s” Ron MacLean some years later – became a Devils fan.
(That was me, in full disclosure.)
With $2,000 burning a hole in his cutoff jean shorts and the Devils pushing deeper into the playoffs with every win over the Flyers, Bob Wyshynski took a flier on two tickets for the Stanley Cup Final, a series for which the Devils had yet to guarantee their attendance. Five hundred dollars, to a ticket broker, for Game 4 at Brendan Byrne.
His sniveling, just out of high-school son – with a petulant attitude and an annoying self importance, according to Yahoo Sports blog commenters some years later – complained that this $500 gift wasn’t for Game 6, which he felt would be the more likely game in which the Devils would raise the Stanley Cup should they overcome Detroit.
(That was me, in full disclosure. I could be such an ungrateful little turd.)
My father’s response? He just wanted to make sure we go to see a game, in case the Devils lost in five or fewer games.
If I was upset, my mother … well, let’s just say Game 4 happened to fall on June 24, 1995, which happened to also be my parents’ 20th wedding anniversary. Twenty-five years is silver, 50 is gold, and 20 apparently is allowing your husband to drop half-a-grand on hockey tickets for a boys’ night out.
Needless to say, $1,000 of his lotto winnings were immediately dedicated to a “make it up to her fund.”
My father’s foresight ended up being palpable: Game 4 turned out to be the potential Stanley Cup clincher for the Devils, after having won the first three games against their superior opponent (on paper) the Detroit Red Wings.
We would have a chance to watch hockey’s Holy Grail presented to the Devils on New Jersey ice.
But I wouldn’t dare leave this to chance. So I built a voodoo doll.
An admission: My sports superstitions concerning the Devils ranked somewhere between professional goaltender and legal grounds for commitment to a mental health facility.
The clothes I wore. The liquid I drank (pink lemonade, mostly). If I stormed out of the basement cursing the team’s existence if they were down after a period. If I spun around three times before overtime. It’s a minor miracle I wasn’t walking around with a surgical mask and a jar of my own fingernail clippings at my high-school graduation.
So I figured a voodoo doll would be in order for Game 4, and the obvious visage was the slimy unofficial mascot of the Wings, the octopus.
The tradition began back in 1952, when brothers Pete and Jerry Cusimano threw a cephalopod on the ice at Olympia Stadium during the postseason. Each tentacle signified one of the eight playoff wins needed back in the Original Six days in order to take home the Cup.
Like many long-held societal traditions – seriously, WTF with Groundhog’s Day? – this one was nonsensical when viewed through a modern filter. After the league expanded the playoffs to four rounds, didn't the eight wins that the eight legs of an octopus symbolized basically equate to making the conference finals? Perhaps that's why the Red Wings hadn't advanced to the championship round since 1966.
(Upgrading to something with 16 legs, while logical, wasn’t an option. Because although smuggling a caterpillar into the Joe was easier than saran-wrapping a dead mollusk to your leg under your jeans, it simply lacks the aerodynamics to be effectively thrown from beyond the second row.)
The octopus loomed over the series like a mighty Kraken, thanks to Fox Sports’ unending infatuation with the gimmick. They had cameras in the Detroit fish markets. They had endless features on the proper way to purchase octopi, how to smuggle them into the arena, and the precise manner in which to hurl them onto the ice. Red Wings fans rewarded that infatuation by littering the ice with 18 octopi during and after the Game 1 national anthem.
Said Ken Daneyko, New Jersey restaurateur: “It's a waste of good calamari.”
I began the intricate construction on an Anti-Red Wing Octopus Voodoo Puppet for Game 4 by rummaging through our house’s garage, happening upon a dirty aquamarine-colored rubber ball, about the size of those mini-basketballs you hurl in desperation in an arcade pop-a-shot game. My artistic skills being about as good as my skating, I gave the ball to my sister and had her draw a cartoon face on it.
My next find was an old mop head in our basement. I braided the dirty white tassels into eight "legs," and then fastened the ball on top of it. I attached a stick to the bottom of the mop head, so I could raise the little bugger into the air during the game like one of the faded, dusty pennants that hung in our wood-paneled man cave of a ground floor.
Finally, I cut out a circle from a piece of poster board, and taped it to the ball near the mouth as a cartoon speech bubble. The message emanating from this Red Wings' effigy was a simple one, echoing the hopes and dreams of all Devils fans with their team up 3-0:
It read, "Sweep Me!"
On June 24, my father, my Anti-Red Wings Octopus Voodoo Doll and I arrived early for Game 4 to tailgate. I took my pseudo-mollusk and began walking through the thousands of fans enjoying beer, burgers and the taste of victory to come. I raised it into the air like a marching band baton. A few fans posed for pictures with the puppet, happily joining in with the octo-bashing.
My father and I soon moved inside the arena, and he had to run to the john before we made the Himalayan trek to our upper deck seats. (Even back in 1995, $250 didn’t get you anything but the top of the Meadowlands’ Stairway To Heaven, a.k.a. the 200 Sections.) I stood across the concourse and waited, coddling my puppet like a small dog. I was watching a stream of Devils fans chuckle at the prop as they walked by, when suddenly I found myself surrounded by red and white jerseys.
Jerseys without any black in them.
Jerseys with a winged wheel on them.
Detroit fans, a small Red (Wing) Army. They had cornered me and my mocking mannequin, which succeeded in simultaneously humiliating both their team and its greatest fan tradition.
Keep in mind that roughly 90-percent of my fan interactions with visiting fans at Devils games were ones supporting the Rangers or Flyers, who would respond to whimsical mockery of their life’s passion with a fist if their profanity didn’t properly convey their opposition. So I figured these Red Wings fanatics were either going to rip the little guy out of my arms and hurl him into the Carvel stand nearby in a fit of about-to-be-swept-in-the-Finals rage – perish the soft-serve machine that took the full brunt of that attack – or they were simply going to rip my arms off and toss them instead.
The silence was broken. "Now that's funny," one of them said.
I slightly loosened my grip on the octopus while the rest of the Wings fans laughed loudly.
They liked my octopus. They found it amusing. It made them laugh. It was a clown to them. I staring into the abyss of a Stanley Cup Final sweep softened their resolve. Or, at the very least, that the price of their tickets to watch their team’s season end infused them with gallows humor.
Soon, they had crowded around me like we were posing for The Makeshift Mollusk Club in a high-school yearbook. They wished my team luck, and were off. Epitomes of class. Sorta like their organization. Well, outside of Ciccarrelli, I thought.
Three periods later, and obviously due to the attendance of my puppet and its untold mystical powers, the Devils were Stanley Cup champions for the first time in their history. The arena was going insane and, caught up in the moment, I took my artificial octopus off its stick and hurled it as far as I could from the upper deck.
I didn’t see where it landed. I didn’t care. Euphoria trumped all.
Later, as the players partied around the Stanley Cup near center ice, I spied something in the left corner of the rink near the boards. It was an aquamarine rubber ball, relayed to the ice by someone it likely brained in the lower bowl.
They didn’t care. Euphoria trumped all.
Everyone felt their own connection to that team on that night. The hours spent watching them flail about as a franchise. The tears spilled during the defeats. The unbridled joy their successes rewarded the fans. The players on the ice raising the Cup as the fans with their names on their backs hugged strangers.
In that moment, I had my own odd connection: a silly doll made by a slightly psychotic fan, resting on the ice as the players skated the Cup.
I turned to tell my father about it, but he was gone – having rushed to the closest merchandise booth to be one of the first to wear a 1995 Stanley Cup champions hat. (They say fan psychosis is a learned behavior.)
He returned with two, their Devils’ logos sloppily ironed on, over-lapping the word “CHAMPIONS.” Ah, the mark of freshness ...
We wore them out into the parking lot, where fans would rather soon for a much-mocked but perfect for the franchise “parade.” I remember screaming. Laughing. Rain falling on our smiles.
There were 19,040 of us in the building that night. That my father and I were two of them. I’ll forever be in debt to my father’s insatiable dedication as a sports fan, his canny logic on guaranteeing us attendance for at least one Final game and, of course, the ping-pong balls of the New Jersey Lottery for coming up with the requisite amount for Game 4 tickets.
To paraphrase the lotto motto: We got to be in it, to see them win it …
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