Philadelphia, we could hate. Philadelphia, we could make fun of. We could start with its soggy soft pretzels, move quickly to the “Rocky” movies, Legionnaires’ disease — then hit ’em with Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams, who served up the mushball that ended the World Series.
Pow! Philly would have been easy. Had the Flyers made the Stanley Cup finals, the war between Detroit and Philadelphia would have been a beautiful thing, two great blue-collar sports towns hurling insults up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
But nooooo. In our first Stanley Cup championship series since 1966, we don’t get a nice, hateable city like Philadelphia. We get . . . New Jersey, which isn’t even a city, it’s a state. Not even a memorable state. I know. I grew up there — and I keep trying to forget it.
The Devils? The New Jersey Devils are the opponent? What kind of rivalry is that? How can you hate a team that has no fans, hardly any history, and plays in a place where the signature building is a refinery? East Rutherford. Great. We finally found a town that smells worse than an octopus.
I don’t want to say the atmosphere there is polluted. I will say when you land at Newark’s airport, they offer to let you keep the oxygen mask.
“When you think of the tradition of New Jersey hockey, what comes to mind?” Shawn Burr was asked after Red Wings practice Wednesday.
“Um . . .” he said.
New Jersey? Bring back southern California
Why can’t we get an opponent we can sink our teeth into? When the Pistons played the Lakers, the hatred was there. Good, honest, hardworking people of the Rust Belt versus the plastic surgeons of LA. When the Tigers played San Diego, the hatred was there. Good, honest, hardworking people of the Rust Belt versus unemployed beach volleyballers.
What do we have here? Detroit, home of the automobile, versus New Jersey, home of the turnpike exit. It is true, people in New Jersey identify themselves by the ramp number closest to their home. They say, “I live off Exit 10A.” This is better than saying, “I live next to the sewage plant.”
New Jersey does have some nice parts. Unfortunately, they are nowhere near where the Devils play. They call that area, euphemistically, the Meadowlands. I have been there many times. I have never seen a meadow, or, for that matter, much land. Mostly I see highways, ramps, storage facilities, smokestacks and the occasional coughing bird.
No wonder they want to move the team to Nashville, Tenn. At least in Nashville they’d know who their fans were: Guys who look like Conway Twitty. Who is a Jersey Devils fan?
And don’t say “people in New Jersey.” It’s not true. In North Jersey, they root for the New York teams. In South Jersey, they root for the Philly teams. In Atlantic City, they root for BAR-BAR-BAR.
In East Rutherford? Even the teams that play there don’t want you to know it. The New York Giants. The New York Jets. Can you spell “d-e-n-i-a-l”?
Wait. There are two good things that came out of New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra. Then again, Bruce sang “Born to Run” and Frank sang “Come Fly With Me,” so it sounds like they were planning their escapes all along.
“Is there anything you can think of that symbolizes the New Jersey hockey tradition?” we implored Burr once again.
“Hmm,” he said.
Hmm? Bring back the Jordanaires
Now, I want the NHL to realize what it’s missing here. Detroit can sports-hate with the best of them. We couldn’t stand Michael Jordan long before it became fashionable. We hated the Cowboys, the Bears and other teams that did what our Lions could not, namely, win. We’ve even had mini-wars with international cities, such as Toronto and its Blue Jays.
But this is asking too much. The New Jersey Devils? Give us something to work with. Tell us where they live. Normally, in a championship series, the opposing mayors place friendly wagers. How do we do that? There’s no mayor of New Jersey. Even if there were, what would he bet?
DETROIT MAYOR: If you win, we’ll send you a pound of Coney Islands, a case of Vernors and a carton of Sanders fudge.
JERSEY MAYOR: And if you win, we’ll send you some industrial sludge.
New Jersey? Home of the Nets, Rutgers and Seton Hall? You don’t hate a place like this, you throw it a rope.
Besides, the Devils only came into being — 13 years ago — because some genius figured people who can’t get Rangers or Islanders tickets would need a team. So he bought the Colorado Rockies, gave them a new name, and the players went from seeing mountains out their bedroom windows to seeing Exit 16.
Life is unfair. But we will try. We Detroiters will work ourselves into a lather over Claude Lemieux — definitely not a New Jersey name — and Randy McKay and Martin Brodeur. We will hate as best we can.
Still, it won’t be the same as Boston, Montreal or Philadelphia. We’re getting cheated here. We need a city, an accent, a historic reference. Not swamplands.
Wait. I am told this is the place where Edison invented the bulb. So we could say the lights were once turned on in New Jersey.
Now, if we can just find the guy who turned them off.