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?

Jaromir Jagr: International Superstar

With the elimination of the Czech Republic by Sweden in the bronze medal game in this year’s World Championship, held in Minsk, Belarus, Jaromir Jagr announced his retirement from international play. While Jagr had only half-seriously, it seems now, mentioned to The Star Ledger prior to last season’s Olympic break that he wanted to play in the 2018 Olympics (at which he would be 46 years old), the close to this chapter of Jagr’s storied career is a big one.

Many know about his exploits in the National Hockey League: most career game-winning goals (124), most goals by a European born player (705), assists by a European player (1,050) and most points by a European born player (1,755) – among many other records – as well as the accolades: two time Stanley Cup champion (1991 and 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins), five time Art Ross Trophy winner (1995, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001) as the league’s scoring champ, three time Lester B. Pearson Award (player’s MVP – 1999, 2000 and 2006), the 1999 Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, seven time NHL First Team All-Star and a member of the 1991 NHL All-Rookie Team. However, there is another side to Jagr’s career, on the larger ice sheet of international play that is rarely publicized outside of his native Czech Republic.

Jagr began his international career representing Czechoslovakia at the 1989 European Junior Championship. There the team would win a silver medal while Jagr would pick up 12 points in five games played (8 goals and 4 assists). The following year, Czechoslovakia would place third in both the World Junior Championships and the World Championships. Jagr was a member of both of those bronze medal winning teams and would post 18 points in seven games played in the WJC but only 5 points in ten games at the World Championships.

Jagr’s North American tournament debut was at the 1991 Canada Cup, the season after he had made his remarkable debut with Pittsburgh. The young Pens’ star posted a goal in five games played as the Czechs finished in sixth place. Jagr would have to wait until 1994 to represent what was now known as the Czech Republic at the World Championships. The team played to a seventh place finish as Jagr had two assists in just three games played.

Jagr’s next two forays into international hockey would see two extremely different finishes. At the 1996 World Cup of Hockey (the late summer tournament that replaced the Cold War-era Canada Cup) the Czechs would finish in eighth place (the lowest a Jagr-led Czech team would ever finish in international play) and Jagr would have one goal in three games played. That debacle would be followed up two years later at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, where NHL stars were allowed to compete for the first time in Olympic history. It was here where Jagr would total five points (one goal and four assists in six games) and the Czech Republic would finish first and win the gold medal. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Jagr’s international career and would only add to his legend as one of the greatest of all time.

Jagr and the Czechs followed that performance up with a seventh place finish four years later in 2002 in their Olympic title defense at Salt Lake City. Jagr had 2 goals and 3 assists in a quick four game exit. It was a disappointing return to the international stage for Jagr and that same year, he would compete in the World Championships finishing with an even 4 goals and 4 assists in seven games as the team moved to a fifth place finish.

The year 2004 saw Jagr compete internationally in two tournaments: the World Championships (hosted by the Czechs in Prague and Ostrava) where the Czech Republic was eliminated by the Americans in the Quarterfinals, 3-2. In that tournament, Jagr had five goals and four assists in seven games. Jagr’s other international appearance in 2004 was in the World Cup of Hockey where he ended with one goal and one assist in five games while the Czechs won the bronze medal.

The following year saw World Championship gold for Jagr and the Czechs (he had 2 goals, 7 assists and 9 points in 8 games), while 2006 gave Jagr a return to the Olympic Games. In those Olympics, Jagr had 2 goals and 5 assists in 8 games, helping the Czechs to a bronze medal finish.

After a three year absence from the international scene, Jagr returned in 2009 at the World Championships and scored 3 goals and 6 assists in seven games. The Czechs plodded to a sixth place finish that year and would do only slightly better at the Olympics the following year. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, where Jagr was the Czech Republic’s flag bearer marching into the Olympic Stadium at the opening ceremonies, the Czechs finished in seventh place while Jagr had only 2 goals and 1 assist in five games played. That year’s World Championships saw Czech Republic win gold and Jagr score 3 goals and 4 assists in nine games. That tournament was notable for Jagr as he set a personal “best” for PIMs with 12. Twenty eleven’s World Championships saw the Czechs drop to third place with a bronze medal while Jagr had nine points in nine games (5 goals, 4 assists).

Jaromir Jagr’s international career came to an end in 2014 with an appearance in the Sochi Olympics, where the Czechs would finish sixth (Jagr had 2 goals and 1 assist in five games) and in the World Championships, where the team finished fourth and Jagr finished up his last international tournament with 4 goals and 4 assists in ten games.

Although the Czech Republic would not medal in either of Jagr’s final two appearances with the team, the current Devil (who had just resigned with the NHL team for the 2014-15 season) has certainly made his mark internationally. As in the NHL, Jagr was brilliant in his international career and a player truly deserving of the word “superstar.”

Hopefully for Devils fans, Jagr will not get a chance to rethink his decision to retire from the Czech National Team (as the World Championships are played at the same time as the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the teams are usually populated with guys whose teams either missed the second season or were eliminated early on). So, while he has exited the world stage NHL fans in general and Devils fans in particular look forward to seeing what the notorious gym and rink rat Jagr can do for the next year or so.