Best of the Books: Smallest crowd

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When you think of sparse attendance figures for an NHL game, you picture a bad night in Phoenix or Atlanta (when the Thrashers were still there) – a few thousand fans spread out across a sea of empty seats. But how hollow must it have felt in New Jersey on the night of Jan. 22, 1987, when a mere 334 fans were in the stands?

Of course, the low attendance that evening had nothing to do with the teams and everything to do with the weather. A vicious snowstorm that pounded the Eastern Seaboard from Georgia to New York took a toll on New Jersey’s roads.

“Traditionally players take a nap around 1:00 or 1:30 and there wasn’t a snowflake in sight,” said Doug Sulliman, a member of that Devils squad. “I woke up around 3:30 to have a cup of tea and there had to be two feet of snow on the ground and it was still coming.”

Sulliman was lucky that he didn’t live far from the rink, though his trip tells you everything you need to know about how difficult it was to get around that evening. Since he had a Jeep Wrangler, Sulliman wasn’t concerned about the road conditions. But what he wasn’t counting on were the number of abandoned cars littering the streets and obstructing his path.

“I couldn’t get on the regular westbound highway,” Sulliman explained. “So what I did was get on the off-ramp and backed up on the eastbound side and I drove in reverse for three miles weaving in and out of parked cars all the way to the rink.”

Sulliman was one of the first to get there, but there were so many late arrivals that the game’s 7:30 start time was pushed back to 9:22.

“The referee kept saying, ‘When you have 14 players we’re starting’ and we just kept hiding guys who were coming in,” Sulliman said. “We didn’t want to start the game until we had everyone.”

Coincidentally, it was the road team that had little trouble getting to the rink on time. The Flames were staying across the road from Brendan Byrne Arena and were all ready to go. As they waited, both teams took two or three warmups, with the Devils shooting around with about six skaters.

What’s amazing is that any fans showed up at all.

“I think the only people in the stands were trying to find solace from the storm,” Sulliman said.

The game lacked intensity overall, though it did ramp up toward the end as New Jersey held a one-goal lead until an empty-netter secured a 7-5 victory. It was a strange evening to have a career game, but Sulliman exploded with a tremendously productive three periods.

“Of course, I had a career night, three goals and two assists, and nobody knew it,” Sulliman laughed. “It was hilarious. It was beautiful.”

While concession workers had little to do and spent most of their time watching the game from the aisles, Sulliman remembers something coming from the stands. Normally, voices of yelling fans are lost in a large crowd, but there was one fan each player noticed during this specific tilt.

“There was this one guy who had something to say about everything on both teams,” Sulliman recalled. “We had this one big mouth in the corner – I don’t know if he had about six beers in him or what – but he was having the time of his life just cutting everybody up. Then we were all kind of joking that maybe one of us could catch him – you know, just step aside and I’ll whistle one up over the glass at him.”

The Devils public relations staff went around to each of the spectators in the building that night to gather their contact information. They later received a pin, t-shirt and got tickets to the next Devils-Flames game or the closest contest to the one-year anniversary. They were also invited to a game and private reception during the team’s 25th anniversary season.

Not a bad haul for the fans who will forever be members of the very exclusive “334 Club.”

This is an excerpt from THN’s 2011 book, Hockey’s Most Amazing Records.