Devils vs. Rangers: The Stanley Cup and a friend named Jimmyby Christopher C. Wuensch on May. 14, 2012, under Sports
I need to take a moment to step out of my “unbiased” sports writer’s shoes for a moment so I can make a confession.
I despise the New York Rangers.
If asked to rank the 122 professional sports franchises in the Big Four (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL), the Rangers are No. 123 on my list. I’ll find a way to rank a minor league baseball team or an NFL Europe squad ahead of them.
So when the universe’s No. 1 Rangers fan comes to me — a diehard New Jersey Devils fan — in a dream, it catches my attention.
His name is Jimmy Aschwanden and last night I dreamt I was hanging out with my good friend. In the ethereal world of my mind, it was his birthday.
I hadn’t thought about him during the day, nor had I even stopped to think about hockey before sleepily sidling into bed.
But to dream about someone you’ve spent your adolescence trading (good-natured) hockey smack-talk with on the eve of the Eastern Conference Finals between our two teams is goose-bump inducing.
It was a little over a year ago when I had my last epiphany regarding Jimmy — a body-numbing moment that turned out to be the 10th anniversary of the day the hockey Gods summoned him to heaven.
I’m not exactly sure what form of Leukemia he lost his battle with, but, if there’s any divine irony at play, I’d like to believe it was Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma — if solely for the initials N.H.L.
We grew up playing rollerblade hockey in the cul-de-sacs 20 miles west of New York City in a tiny, unassuming New Jersey-borough along the banks of the Ramapo River, where the concrete sprawl of the Big Apple begins yielding to the picturesque spine of the Appalachian Mountains.
We’d play until our feet hurt like hell, which was usually long after the day had ran out of sunlight.
I can still envision the slap shot that I drilled him in the chest with one cold afternoon. The “oooph” his lungs managed to eke out still clearly resonates in my mind.
My inflated pride at uncorking such a ferocious slap shot was quickly replaced by the conflicting emotion of dread that I had just maimed my friend by rocketing an orange rubber ball off his solar plexus.
He wasn’t mad. Anger simply wasn’t engrained in his DNA. He certainly didn’t miss any game time to mend his wound. I like to think he wore the bruise as a badge of honor. After all, he made the save — just like one of his heroes Bob Froese, who stopped 2,296 shots as the Rangers’ goaltender in the late 80s.
But the lunchtime bantering over rubber chicken sandwiches (should’ve used them as the pucks), soggy curly fries and Slush Puppies in the Indian Hills High School cafeteria is probably among my most cherished memories.
It was a friendly repartee which would start with me saying that Chris Terreri could beat up Mike Richter in a goalie fight. He’d respond with his impression of Devil fans over-reacting to shots that never came close to reaching the goal.
The irony of our affable kerfuffles was that, up until then, neither team ever came close to winning a Stanley Cup during our lifetime — or the lifetimes of many folks much older than us.
But that soon changed. Jimmy got the upper hand our senior year when the Rangers stunned the Devils in a 1994 Eastern Conference Finals that needed every second of seven epic games and two overtimes.
New York went on to win the Cup that year, ending Devils’ fans favorite pastime of taunting the Rangers faithful with the chant of “19-40!”
It was an homage to the last time the Broadway Blue-Shirts had their name etched onto the sporting world’s most hallowed piece of hardware.
That chant didn’t just echo off the catacombs of Continental Airlines Arena (forever Brendan Byrne Arena to diehard New Jersey fans), it consistently struck Ranger fans in the solar plexus like a rocketed slap shot.
It was my best ammunition in our on-going debate. He, to his credit, always countered with “19-Never!”
That changed the very next year when the Devils finally won their first title. New Jersey would go on to win three Stanley Cups over the next nine seasons.
Boasting, however, just didn’t seem right. Jimmy didn’t make it to see the third one.
It’s amazing how a game played by burly tough guys can teach the painful humility of not just sports, but life.
Tonight, the Devils and Rangers will reprise the 1994 playoffs. They’ve met three times in the postseason since then, with the Rangers holding a 2-1 edge.
But the ’94 series remains the benchmark in the PATH Train rivalry.
I despise the New York Rangers.
But I find it hard to look back at their 1994 Stanley Cup and think that other-worldly factors beyond our comprehension weren’t involved.
That one was for you, Jimmy.
Enjoy this year’s series, bud.
Sorry about that slap shot.