By Arnie Leshin
It was 1982 and the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey was getting another tenant to join the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association. The arena first named for the former state governor was situated next to Giants Stadium where the National Football League Giants had moved from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and the Nets had relocated north from Rutgers University, followed by the New York Jets from Shea Stadium.
So with this bringing more traffic from the near-by New Jersey Turnpike, it was time for the National Hockey League to lay down the ice and install the Colorado Avalanche to be the New Jersey Devils. Colorado had this franchise after it was first the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey League, and thus became the Garden State’s first NHL team.
So I wondered into the Paterson News/Hudson Dispatch sports department in Paterson in the early afternoon and heard talk about the new sport coming aboard. I asked who would cover the team and sports editor Bob O’Connor pointed to me. Me? I turned to O’Connor, laughed and said I hadn’t been much of a hockey writer. O’Connor’s response was, “You are now.”
Wayne Walker had often spoken about the popular sport on ice skates, so had Phil Coffey, but O’Connor, who had hired me, had already applied for my media pass and posted the early schedule of the hockey season. First game versus the NHL’s winningest franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, who were known as the Canadiens and not the Canadians.
It was a sellout. For those who thought I could deliver freebie tickets, they were disappointed. Maybe later in the season, but not on this night that featured Montreal and its usual star-studded lineup. Final score 7-1 Canadiens. the lone Colorado goal was tallied by Valeri Kamensky when it was already 6-0. It was chilly outside, but inside Montreal was simply red-hot.
I had covered basketball, baseball, football and other professional sports through the years, but this was different. The hockey players were more polite, personable, even asked me questions about New Jersey, shook hands, and that’s what I told my peers back at the office.
O’Connor said “Good, glad you were happy, stay with it.”
I had no choice. Comp passes? Forget about it. The Devils, not so good in their initial campaign. The New York Rangers had been playing for ages at Madison Square Garden across the Hudson and the New York Islanders were born at the Nassau Veterans Coliseum In Hempstead Long Island.
But I stayed with the Devils because as O’Connor said, “That was our local team.” So we sent Walker to MSG, picked up Islanders results via the wire services, and the Devils improved each year, even won three Stanley Cups, and after 13 years, the Colorado Avalanche were now back in Denver at the new McNichols Arena, sharing the venue with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets.
But I remained as a hockey writer, being sent to Long Island and MSG, the Meca of venues, several times starting in 1985.
I was also assigned to the New York Mets and was the beat writer for their 1986 World Series champions who won a wild seven-game series over the Boston Red Sox. After the Mets had lost game five in Boston to fall behind in games, 3-2, they returned to Shea Stadium and had a whirlwind 5-4 win when with a two out, two strikeout count on catcher Gary Carter and down 4-3 in the last of the 10th when Mookie Wilson’s bouncing ball went past the glove of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner.
In game seven that was delayed a day because of a rain cancellation, it was the Mets coming from 3-0 down in the middle innings to win 6-3. But there was always talk about the Wilson bouncer after the Mets had tied the score at 4-4 that game on a wild pitch with him at bat. The blame mostly pointed to Buecker, but there were those who said if he fielded it the game would have been gone into another extra inning.
But no that is incorrect. I had been in the corner of the Red Sox dugout before the frame began and was to cover Boston’s proposed championship as champaign looked to be heading to its clubhouse, but with switch hitter Wilson batting from the left side, there was no way Buecker could have beaten him to the base, but he botched it anyway.
Oh the Colorado Avalanche, well it is clearly on the road to its fourth Stanley Cup after winning the first two games at Pepsi Center against the visiting back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lighting, 3-2 and 7-0. It was on its way to remaining the only NHL team that had won every Cup final. Yes, the franchise that dresses in uniforms of burgundy, silver and white has done its fair share of winning.
Its Hall of Fame has inserted the likes of former head coach and now general manager Joe Sakic, a super center for it, Legendary goalie Patrick Roy, center Peter Forsberg, defenders Adam Foote and Ray Bourque, and right wing Milan Hejduk.
One more thing, game four of the Stanley Cup in 2001 against the Florida Panthers. Colorado had already iced the Panthers in the first three games, two won by shutouts in Colorado, and in game four it was a thriller in the Sunshine State when the Avalanche scored midway through the fourth overtime for a 1-0 clincher.
I had been down there and assigned by the Miami Herald to do a sidebar on games 3 and 4. The first time I saw the Avalanche it was 1982, the last time it was winning a classic final at the Panthers.
About 4-5 hours later I headed home but it wasn’t easy avoiding the disappointed Florida fans.
Anway thank you Bob O’Connor for assigning me to the ice rink. Great sport.