Lewis Katz and the Devils’ Glory Days

With the recent passing of former Devils’ part owner Lewis Katz in a Massachusetts plane crash, now would be a great time to look back at Katz’ group, Puck Holdings (a part of YankeeNets), time as Devils owners, which coincided with some of the most successful years of New Jersey Devils hockey as a tribute, of sorts to the legacy of the late Mr. Katz.

YankeeNets (known today as Yankee Global Enterprises, LLC) formed in 1999 when ownership of Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees and the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets merged. The Devils came into the picture a year later when, as the franchise was defeating the Dallas Stars for its second Stanley Cup in 2000, Dr. John McMullen (the team’s original owner who had moved the Colorado Rockies to the Meadowlands in 1982) sold the team for $175 million. YankeeNets and Puck Holdings original goal in acquiring the Devils was similar to why the Yankees had bought the Nets in the first place: programming for what would become the YES Network. There was also the intention to move the team to a new arena in Newark (this goal would be achieved by Jeff Vanderbeek, a partner in Puck Holdings, who would buy the team outright from YankeeNets in 2004, with the building of the Prudential Center). The Devils would never join the Yankees and the Nets on the YES Network, instead re-upping with Cablevision owned MSG Network and continuing to have their games shown alongside the Rangers and Islanders.

From 2000 to 2004, the team was largely left in the hands of General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who would be named the CEO of the Devils and the Nets going in to the 2000-01 season. He would remain in those positions until the sale of the Nets to Bruce Ratner in 2004 and the sale of the Devils to current owners Joshua Harris and David S. Blitzer in 2013 (Scott O’Neil now holds that position with the team). Lamoriello’s continued influence, as well as the new resources allowed them by being connected to the Yankees, would be felt on the team as they won the Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003 as well as an Eastern Conference Championship in 2001 (losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals in seven games). Individual award winners during this period saw Scott Stevens take home the 2000 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, Scott Gomez winning the Calder Trophy as 2000’s Rookie of the Year, John Madden being named 2001 Frank J. Selke Trophy winner (best defensive forward) and Martin Brodeur’s 2003 winning of the Vezina Trophy (outstanding goaltender). The team also won two Atlantic Division regular season championships: in 2000-01 and 2002-03.

While the Nets were also experiencing some of their best times in their history in New Jersey at this time (going to the NBA Finals, but ultimately losing in 2002 and 2003); and the Yankees were continuing their winning ways of making the MLB playoffs, including World Series appearances in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003, things were looking very bright for YankeeNets and their subsidiaries. Since the breakup, the teams have remained relatively successful (however only the Yankees have won a major championship since: claiming a World Series title in 2009 – although the Devils did make a return to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, losing in six games to Los Angeles) and, of course, the YES Network has become a boon to the Yankees and the (now-known-as) Brooklyn Nets. All three teams have built new facilities – the Yankees having built a new Yankee Stadium across the street from the original, the Nets now calling downtown Brooklyn home at the Barclays Center and the Devils moving from Continental Airlines Arena (site of two of the franchise’s three Stanley Cup victories) to the beautiful Prudential Center in downtown Newark, New Jersey.

For the Devils in particular, while there were some issues with ownership’s finances during Jeff Vanderbeek’s tenure (mostly tied to the building of the Prudential Center and the timing of it), the issues had little to do with the team itself on or off the ice, but rather the NHL’s instability at the time (the time between Puck Holdings ownership of the team and the current ownership group dovetailed neatly with two NHL lockouts, one of which resulted in a completely lost 2004-05 season) and with it the rule changes on ice and the off ice financial upheaval of the league. While the Devils did remain competitive, the new reality of the NHL was that dynasties were a thing of the past – indeed, the last team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups remains the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings.

The Puck Holdings era also saw the team molded in the image of Lou Lamoriello more than at any time during his tenure, save maybe the 1994-1995 era teams. In subsequent years, the team would spend a lot of money to keep superstars like Ilya Kovalchuk in a Devils uniform, the 2000 to 2003 clubs were more better represented by undrafted free agents like Madden and Brian Rafalski, the emergence of homegrown draftees Petr Sykora, Gomez and Patrik Elias, as well as shrewd trades that brought in players like Jason Arnott and aging megastar Alexander Mogilny. There was a winning formula that Lamoriello had found and captured in those days and he was allowed to do that through the hands off nature by the Puck Holdings group. Again, even though Vanderbeek largely went the same route, it was some of the personnel decisions made during his tenure (coaching and player-wise) that would take away some of the Devils stability and, ultimately, lead to early exits from the playoffs, or worse missing the playoffs altogether. Chief among those problems has been trading for and signing Kovalchuk to an outrageous contract, incurring the wrath of the NHL over it and taking the penalties, and then losing him to the KHL as well as failing to resign Zach Parise and then not replacing him in the lineup, giving up his scoring output in the lineup. With current ownership’s bankroll and commitment to their business plan, the team can hopefully regain its footing in that regard. The coaching carousel (about nine coaching changes from 2003 to 2011) has been an issue that, hopefully, has evened out with Pete DeBoer’s takeover of the team prior to the 2011-12 season.

So, while the team has enjoyed success under all of their ownership groups, going back to Dr. McMullen, the real “glory days” of the Devils time in New Jersey has to be that period coinciding with Puck Holdings time with the team from 2000 to 2003. The common denominator in any of the Devils success since 1987 has been Lou Lamoriello, but now that Lou faces the twilight of his career as a National Hockey League general manager, the challenge for current ownership will be to find an eventual replacement and keep the team moving forward. History has shown that one of the best things Lewis Katz’ group did was to give Lou Lamoriello more decision-making power. That led to unmatched success for the team. How will current ownership move forward when the time comes for Lamoriello to hang ‘em up and the team has to move into another era?

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