By Michele J. Kuhn
FAIR HAVEN – As a kid in North Jersey, Tim Sullivan became a Devils fan.
“Growing up about 10 miles from where they originally played. I think a lot of North Jersey people my age were Devils fans because it was an opportunity to see the game without having to go all the way to ‘the city,’” said the Montvale native, who has lived in Fair Haven with his family for the past eight years.
“I think the Devils represented a new world of hockey in New Jersey … As close as the Rangers were, it was still a hassle to get there,” he said. “I think there are generations of Devils fans in New Jersey … that became fans because of the convenience, because of the location and because it was a team they could call their own.”
Sullivan, now the east sports editor for The Associated Press, has written a book about what he sees as the real start of this region’s serious interest in hockey. Battle for the Hudson: The Devils, the Rangers and the Greatest NHL Series Ever is about the 1994 Eastern Conference Championship series between the Devils, who had been in New Jersey 12 years and was one of the league’s “laughing stocks” with only one good season before 1993-94, and the venerable New York Rangers, one of the league’s six original teams, which was more than five decades removed from its last championship.
The book chronicles what Sullivan calls hockey’s coming-of-age in the area, a time when the opportunity came for the sport to gain “more notoriety on both sides of the (Hudson) river.”
“I wanted to write a hockey book about our area and a sort of a turning point in New York and New Jersey to where (hockey) became a little bit more ‘out there,’ there was a little more buzz about the sport,” he said. “1994 seemed to be the best starting point. You had both teams playing each other. One would go on to the Stanley Cup finals and there was a pretty good chance that one of them would win the Stanley Cup. It gripped (New York) City and all the suburbs in and around New Jersey.”
The book also details a number of firsts for hockey. It was the first year that Gary Bettman, now the commissioner of the National Hockey League, worked in the league. It was the first year hockey could be seen nationwide and in Canada when games were shown on ESPN. It was the year after the Devils changed their uniforms from red and green to red and black and it was the first year for coach Jacques Lemaire.
“1994 is really one of the years that hockey can look back on and say it really turned a corner. I wanted to show that year for its importance to the game,” he said.
“The reason we called it the Greatest Series Ever is because the players, the people who covered it, broadcasters and the coaches … all refer to it as that,” Sullivan said. “Both teams went on to win the Stanley Cup within 12 months and also because it was a huge ratings grabber. It gained attention all over the world and a lot of people look back on that series, and that year in particular, as the year hockey truly changed.”
The dramatic series was won by the Rangers, which went on to win Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time in 54 years. The following year it was the Devils turn to hoist the cup.
Sullivan had just graduated from Duquesne University about two weeks before the series took place. He was covering the Pittsburgh Penguins for a Pittsburgh radio station and, when the Penguins were eliminated in the conference semifinals, he got the opportunity to cover the Devils-Rangers series for his station. Though he didn’t know he would be writing about the series years later, he “remembered it and held it in regard ever since.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “It was something that I look back on, as does everyone who covered that series, as something they put on their resume. It was pretty amazing to be in those buildings for those games … I feel very fortunate … to have been part of those games.”
Sullivan interviewed more than 250 players for the book, including Martin Brodeur, who was then a 21-year-old rookie and is now the only player on either the Devils or Rangers 1993-94 teams still an active National Hockey League player.
The book hit stores Oct. 1 and is selling well, Sullivan said. The publisher had made its sale available on a pre-sale basis after the Devils and the Rangers played for the Eastern Conference finals this spring, the same series they had contested 18 years earlier. That helped “generate a little more buzz” for the book, Sullivan said.
The author will talk about and sign the book during an event, coordinated by River Road Books in Fair Haven, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, at Nauvoo Grill, 121 Fair Haven Road. Devils and Ranger fans also will be on hand to speak along with Sullivan about their memories of the series. The Sullivan family will make a donation, based on the number of people who attend, to the Hockey Fights Cancer, a NHL-sponsored charity.
Sullivan, 40, and his family – he and his wife have a son and daughter – moved to Fair Haven in 2004 and love living in the community. “It’s everything everyone told us about it and more,” he said. He had been working at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida and came back to New Jersey to become sports editor at the New York Post.
Sullivan’s passion for hockey is evident.
“Once people start to acquire a taste for the game, I think a couple things happen,” he said. “Most fall in love with it and they wrap themselves up in it. For me, I wanted to make it a career even though I knew I wouldn’t be playing much past my high school years.
“I think the biggest part is, it’s not easy to play. To develop the skills for it, you are almost developing two sports in one. You’re learning how to play hockey and skate all in one. It’s not an easy commitment for families to make because it’s not like a baseball field that’s right around the corner. So you really have to fall in love with the culture of the game because it ends up being deeply rooted in you. Once you’ve been through that and played at whatever level you’ve played, I think it sticks.”
The love of hockey has clearly stuck with Tim Sullivan.