1994-95 champion Devils: An oral history, Pt. 1

Goaltender Martin Brodeur leaps for joy in June 1995 as the New Jersey Devils claim the franchise's first Stanley Cup. (AP)

The New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in the 1994-95 NHL season.

That fact outrages many, enrages some and excites others. The legacy of those Devils is often playing the infamous neutral-zone trap, which ushered in the league’s Dead-Puck Era. And although it is true those Devils netted only 15 more goals than it allowed, their 136 goals tied them for 13th overall — middle of the road — in the 26-team NHL.

While defence is what is remembered most about that season, there were so many other aspects at play. The Devils almost did not get the chance to win the Stanley Cup, and even when they did, it was under the shadow of a potential move from the Garden State.

Also, the rival New York Rangers were nearly forced to wait 18 months to raise their banner, as the league’s first lockout threatened the 1994-95 season.

It’s been 20 years since the Devils claimed their first title. This week, we let the main characters tell their story.

1994-95 New Jersey Devils oral history: Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4/ Part 5

Part 1:  The Disappointment

The Kansas City Scouts, an expansion team in 1974, existed for just two seasons before bolting for Denver to become the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies lasted until 1982, when Dr. John “Mac” McMullen bought the franchise and moved it to New Jersey.

In their early existence, the Devils were an also-ran franchise playing in the shadow of the New York Rangers. Once dubbed a “Mickey Mouse organization” by Wayne Gretzky, the Devils managed just a Cinderella run to the Wales Conference final in 1988 and a slew of first-round playoff exits in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Lou Lamoriello was finishing his sixth season as Devils general manager in 1992-93 and had grown frustrated by his team’s progress. After firing Herb Brooks, Lamoriello reached out to Jacques Lemaire for his vacant head coaching position.

Lou Lamoriello, general manager: We changed coaches because of the different types of teams we had. Not every team is for every coach. We got ourselves to a point where we had a team, I felt, that we had the talent that we could win. We needed an individual who could walk into that room and immediately get the attention of our players.

I looked at the makeup of us. We had a combination of all players from all different ways. We had Europeans. We had Canadians, we had Americans, you name it. Then, we looked at what type of a coach could take this team with a criteria of winning.

If you look at Jacques' resume, he has coached junior hockey, he coached college hockey at Plattsburgh, he coached in Europe, and he had coached Canadiens. We had a player here that had played for him, Claude Lemieux, and he had a knowledge of him.

I approached [Montreal Canadiens general manager] Serge Savard to ask him for permission, and Jacques was not interested. Serge was a friend of mine -- he signed players from Providence College when I was there -- and he convinced Jacques to talk.

When we met here in New York, maybe there was a chemistry between us. He knew the team, and I told him of its makeup and I told him we could win.

"I believe you have to fail to have success," says Lamoriello. "Sometimes if it comes too quick, you can't sustain it."

Scott Niedermayer, defenceman: Tom McVie was the coach my first year, and then Herb Brooks was here my second year. He fit my personal style really well. He liked me as a skating player.

But then Jacques came in, and the team was building, and it was sort of exactly what we needed.

Lemaire reached out to a familiar face when looking for an assistant.

Larry Robinson, assistant coach: I was doing some work as a national spokesman for Bridgestone tires in Canada, and I actually got a call from Lou Lamoriello to ask if I was interested to be an assistant in Jersey. He was flying to Montreal and asked if I wanted to meet with him. At that point, I had no idea who the head coach would be.

He flew into Dorval [Que.], and I met him at a hotel, and lo and behold, there's Jacques Lemaire sitting in the hotel room. We were more than just teammates; we were pretty good friends. He had a cottage in Gray Rocks, and I used to rent the cottage from him. We spent quite a bit of time together. It certainly made my decision a heck of a lot easier knowing I was going to be working with Jacques.

Lamoriello: We surrounded ourselves here with the best people you could possibly have at that time that knew how to win, knew how to teach and loved the game.

Led by Lemaire, Robinson and a potent offence that scored 330 goals, the Devils enjoyed their best regular-season success in 1993-94, finishing with 106 points, behind only the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers in the Atlantic Division.

Mike Emrick, longtime NHL and Devils commentator: The arrival of Lemaire and assistant Larry Robinson at the same time brought in two masters of defence. I remember in the fall of 1993, sitting next to Ken Daneyko in the dressing room at [Devils old practice rink] South Mountain Arena in training camp, and him saying to me, “I’ve learned more playing defence these first three days than I have in my last decade in the NHL.”

“I’ve learned more playing defence these first three days than I have in my last decade in the NHL.” — Ken Daneyko

Ken Daneyko, defenceman: If you couldn’t listen to them and buy into their system, you’d never be able to. Between coaching and playing, they had won so many rings. I don’t know the exact number, but it was in the teens [laughs].

They knew what it would take to win. Jacques had a good system, and it wasn’t just about defence. We had plenty of scoring and were good in goal, and we had a great defensive core. Defence wins championships, but we scored plenty.

They came in, and I learned more from them in two months than I’d learned in the previous 12 years -- and that’s not taking anything away from the guys we had in here before. They taught me not to waste energy and use my stick better and play more positionally sound hockey instead of running around when I was out there.

I learned so many of the finer things to not just win but win championships.

Backstopped by Calder Trophy-winning goalie Martin Brodeur, the Devils reached the Eastern Conference final, where they met their archrival, the Rangers. New Jersey held a 3-2 series lead on the Rangers in the conference final and even possessed a 2-0 lead in Game 6 on home ice. But Mark Messier’s heroics, in which he potted a hat trick mere hours after predicting the Rangers would win, forced a Game 7.

Emrick: The sixth game in ’94 was, of course, made famous by the Messier prediction. Had Mike Richter beat when the Devils led 2-0, and Tom Chorske hit the post. The deficit might have been too much for even Messier to overcome with his hat trick.

Tommy Albelin, defenceman: We had them on the ropes. We were up 3-2, going back into our building. We should’ve won Game 6. We were outplaying them, I think Alexei Kovalev got them started with a goal in the second period, and it just kind of snowballed from there.

Mike Miller, Devils radio broadcaster: This is going to irritate a lot of Rangers fans.

Everybody knows the Messier story. It's a great one. But the real star in that game was Mike Richter. That could've been 7-1 New Jersey going into the third period. Devils had chance after chance after chance after chance in that hockey game. Richter, to me, and Alexei Kovalev were very good that night.

In Game 7, Brian Leetch netted a second-period goal that remained the difference in the game deep into regulation. But the resilient Devils tied the game at one on Valeri Zelepukin’s goal with just 7.7 seconds remaining in regulation.

Albelin: We worked so hard to tie it up.

The clubs ventured into double overtime, but Stephane Matteau’s famous wraparound goal sent New Jersey packing and New York into the Cup final.

Meanwhile, the Devils, who had come as close as ever to their ultimate goal, went home.

Niedermayer: It was a real intense, fun series to be a part of. They had a lot of great players, and trying to knock them off was fun. Being on the ice for the losing goal was pretty tough — a pretty low point as far as my hockey career goes.

We did learn a lot as a team. We learned what it takes and the commitment needed to have success and win the Stanley Cup. But, at the time, when you’re lying on the ice watching the Rangers celebrate Matteau’s goal, you don’t see that.

Scott Stevens, defenceman and captain: There’s no question that hurt. It stung, especially with the Rangers being a big rival. We were a younger team than the Rangers that year, and we took those experiences that weren’t so pleasant and learned how to move on and get better and succeed.

Albelin: When Stephane Matteau scored that goal, it was so deflating. It was something you never wanted to feel again. I think the team used it as fuel for the coming years.

Emrick: The Devils learned much from the conference final in ’94, and smartly, Lou Lamoriello knew he had a pretty solid team to carry forward. The difference between winning and losing was very small in 1994.

When they almost got the reward of a final series against Vancouver in ’94, they could see they were close to being a championship squad.

Lamoriello: It was a great series. It was a series that could go either way. We certainly had the opportunity to win it and did not. You learn from those things. I believe you have to fail to succeed or to have success. Sometimes if it comes too quick, you can't sustain it.

Check Sportsnet.ca tomorrow for Part 2 of the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils oral history.