NEWARK, N.J. - The end of the NHL lockout meant several players from several teams could finally work out with their mates Monday.
Slowly, all of the locker rooms will be filled with players from near and far, an official—albeit brief—training camp will be held, and teams will finally get to the business of trying to win the Stanley Cup.
Who has the advantage in a 48- or 50-game season? Who gets off to a fast start? Who stumbles out of the gate? All questions that will be answered in due time. For now, though, it's about these players getting on the ice.
Several New Jersey Devils, who helped lead the franchise to its fifth Eastern Conference crown in June, worked out Monday, and while thoughts of defending that title—or even winning the Stanley Cup—will soon surface, this organization, above all others, at least has firsthand experience of doing so.
In 1995, after a lockout-shortened 48-game season, the Devils went 16-4 and won their first of three Stanley Cups.
"It was a weird experience. I'll never forget it," said former New Jersey centre Jim Dowd, a member of the 1995 team and a native of Brick, N.J. "It was the first work stoppage I was a part of. One week, you'd get fired up, get skating, you'd think that was the time, and then, just like that, talks were off again."
Those Devils were a confident group and felt very much they could win the Stanley Cup once the 1994 lockout—the first of three in Commissioner Gary Bettman's tenure—ended. After all, New Jersey advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 1994, and lost in seven games to the rival New York Rangers. The Devils clearly wanted nothing more than to return, and pick up right where they left off.
But the league and the NHLPA had other ideas.
"One week on, one week off, it did get frustrating for sure. We never really knew how to feel about it," Dowd said. "We wanted to get back at it, we knew we had a good team coming back, but there was only so much we could do."
Not long after a settlement was reached, though, on Jan. 11, 1995, and the Devils returned to action, they found it wasn't going to be quite as easy as they thought. Despite being among few favourites to win the Stanley Cup, and with very little concern logistically due to the Eastern Conference-only scheduling, New Jersey still struggled out of the box.
Six days into the season, the Devils were 0-3-1.
"So, we come back, and after the lockout, we were up and down," former Devils defenceman Bruce Driver said. "We couldn't figure it out. Something just wasn't working. But we got ourselves to the playoffs.
"And all of a sudden, everything changed."
Maybe it just took some time for that veteran group to find its legs. Maybe it took a little more time than expected to get over the loss to the Rangers. Whatever the case, New Jersey shook the cobwebs and cruised past Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Detroit en route to the title. The Devils trailed in a series just once in that tournament, and swept the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final.
"I can't explain what, how or why the switch went on," Driver said. "You always, as an athlete, think that you can't turn the switch off and on. That's just how success works. We got to the playoffs, and it was like 'Oh, my.'
"Everything just fell into place."
One thing that might have worked in their favour—and something that might help teams this time around, too—was cohesion. Though there were struggles, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello made very few personnel changes to that team from 1994 to 1995. For the most part, it was the same group of players.
So, might that help the teams that didn't have a ton of turnover this off-season?
"That could play a part. You can definitely look at it that way," Dowd said. "We were all together. We were one, big cohesive unit. I've been at this a long time, and it doesn't matter what level of hockey you're talking about. If you've been together a long time, and know each other, and have a feel for each other, you're going to have a leg up. They are your family. And families get through good and bad times together. I think that definitely could help."
And while 18 years is a long time in hockey, there are still members of that "family" with the Devils, who perhaps can be sources of guidance through this shortened season. Former defenceman Scott Stevens, the captain of the 1995 team, is an assistant coach. Lamoriello is still the general manager. And goaltender Martin Brodeur, 40, in just his second season back in 1995, is still the Devils' top goaltender.
"There's no magic potion to it. We knew it was time to get it going, the season started, we were all back and ready to go, and then things just were slow for us. But everyone was in the same boat then, just like now," Dowd said. "It all has to come together at the right time. It may not be right away for some teams, while others may get after it right away.
"If it's meant to be for any team, like it was for us, it just all has to come together at the right time. For us, it took some time. But we got there."
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