Exorcising my Devils demons with Zach Parise
Have you noticed? It's the holiday season. A time for celebration and joy. A time also to forgive and forget.
First, the celebration and joy. Growing up, it revolved around my unconditional love for the New York Rangers. It was the kind of love that saw many challenges, mainly because there were rarely times to celebrate and experience joy when you were a Rangers fan. It was more like hurt and heartbreak. What made it worse for me was the fact I grew up rooting for the Rangers on Long Island, which, of course, is the home of the Islanders.
Which brings me back to 1975. Pre-dynasty. The upstart Islanders were in the playoffs for the first time, and wouldn't you know, they faced the Rangers in the first round. Can you say "learning experience"? That's exactly what it was supposed to be for the Islanders, who everyone and their grandma predicted would get swept by the Rangers in two games (remember, they played best-of-three in the first round back then).
But that wasn't the case, the series went to a third and decisive game. I remember where I was, I was baby-sitting in the neighborhood. I watched the Rangers fall behind 3-0; not the best effort by goalie Gilles Villemure. He was replaced by my first favorite goalie, Eddie Giacomin, who helped the Rangers tie the game at 3 (remember the fight he started with Garry Howatt?) and send it into overtime.
Cue the heartbreak!
Eleven seconds into the extra session, J.P. Parise scored and lifted the Islanders to one of the biggest upsets in Stanley Cup history. It was so quiet at Madison Square Garden, you could hear a pin drop. At that moment, I didn't know what I was in for as Rangers fan.
(Fast-forward, 31 years later, first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.)
It's not about the rivalry with the Islanders anymore; it's about the hated New Jersey Devils, who almost kept us Rangers fans from celebrating that elusive Cup win in 1994.
The Devils already were leading the best-of-seven first-round series 2-0. With New Jersey leading 2-0 in Game 3, Devils rookie Zach Parise, J.P.'s son, standing in almost the same spot as his dad on that infamous 1975 night, scored to give his team a 3-0 lead. The Devils would go on to sweep the battered Rangers.
So, it brings me to forgive and forget. It's time to exorcise my demons. No player better to do that than a Devil, right? Zach Parise.
I told Zach how I felt when I watched his father pull off the unthinkable, watching J.P. quiet a raucous Garden crowd and how Zach did the same thing three decades later.
Zach said he has never seen the highlight of his dad's memorable goal -- his father doesn't even have a copy of it. I assured him that even if I did, I would have shattered it in a million pieces. So, if anyone does, please send a copy to Zach Parise, care of the New Jersey Devils!
Despite the despair the Parises have inflicted on us Rangers fans, the more I spoke to Zach, the more I liked him. He told me what it was like the day he was drafted in 2003. As he sat with his family, his agent and friends, he was falling right into the laps of the Islanders at No. 16. It was a dream come true. They were all convinced -- there was no way the Isles would pass him up, considering his dad's popularity and what his goal meant for the franchise.
Yet, the Islanders did just that. They hooked themselves up to another bloodline when they selected Robert Nilsson, son of former Calgary standout Kent Nilsson. Just when the Parise family was coming out of its state of shock, the Devils traded up and took Parise with the 17th pick.
Zach told me it was GM Lou Lamoriello who gave him a chance to succeed. When the GM took over coaching responsibilities after Larry Robinson's departure, he gave Parise more playing time and put him on a line with Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. It was a move that helped spark the Devils' sizzling second half, which ended with a second-round playoff series loss to Carolina, the eventual Stanley Cup champs.
Zach told me he has learned a lot, especially from Gionta, considering that they're similar in size. He marveled how Gionta would always seem to be where the puck is, scoring the majority of his goals via deflections, rebounds or tap-ins. It has worked for Gionta, and this season it's working for Parise, as well. Through Thursday's games, Zach is second in team scoring with 10 goals and 10 assists in 26 games as the Devils continue to battle the Isles and Rangers for first place in the Atlantic.
After I talked with him, it was all beginning to make sense ...
"I get it, Linda, once a Ranger fan, always a Ranger fan," Parise said. "Despite the ups and many more downs, fans like you just don't switch your allegiance, no matter how many more Cups we win."
As the words poured out of his mouth, I felt a change. The agitation was turning into appreciation. Now, if only New Jersey residents would experience the same. If you're afraid of roller coasters (Rangers) and prefer a steady ride at the top (Devils), then this team will provide all the thrills you need.
If he was head of team marketing, how would Parise sell this Devils team? "I can only look at it from an athlete's perspective, and I would say, 'What more do you want, this team wins!'"
Next thing I know, I was thanking him for his time and wishing him continued success ... and to make sure he said hello to his dad for me.
This, even from a Rangers fan.
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column.
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