“The Snow Is Snowing, The Wind Is Blowing,
But I Can Weather The Storm.”
From the hit song ‘I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,’ by Irving Berlin.
At noon on Jan. 22, 1987, I looked out of the window of my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — and began worrying, big-time.
Little did I realize that my migraines had just begun.
But there was nothing “normal” about this day — and as luck would have it — that night as well.
What possibly could be “normal” about a record-breaking two-foot-deep snowfall?
What could be “normal” about an expected NHL crowd of 11,247 but only 334 show up?
None of those possibilities dawned on me when my usual Dave Katz auto ride to East Rutherford disappeared with a phone call at 3 p.m. “I can’t get my car through the snow,” moaned Katz. “Brooklyn is a mess.”
Turning to my wife, Shirley, I said, “Honey, gimme the car keys; I gotta try to make it to The Meadowlands with our Honda.”
As mini-cars went in that other century, our tiny Civic Wagon was not built for blizzards but neither — I later discovered — were the railroads, buses nor taxicabs.
The good news was that my car actually started. The bad news was that driving two miles to the George Washington Bridge that afternoon was roughly equivalent to me climbing Pike’s Peak in sneakers.
Bobbing and weaving around stalled vehicles, the Honda reached the GW’s (shielded) Lower Roadway and that — as we say on hockey broadcasts — was the “turning point.”
Once on the Jersey side, I alternated between praying and praying harder; then praying harder than that. It must have worked because two hours later, the destination was in sight.
My minicar eventually skidded into the parking lot, moving a lot like Taylor Hall on a breakaway. And when I say it was miraculous, just listen up to the misadventures of Devils players who guessed they could drive to work that night.
For Exhibit A, try New Jersey sniper Peter McNab who later would become a SportsChannel Devils analyst.
“We were stuck. An 18-wheeler had turned over right in front of the Lincoln Tunnel and traffic on Route 3 was backed up forever. There was nowhere to go and I could see I was not going anywhere.
“But I could see the arena, a couple of miles away. I left my car there, gave my keys to a New Jersey State Trooper and just walked through the snow until I got there and found out we’d be playing.”
(P.S. McNab later got his keys back and was told where the Trooper had safely parked his car.)
McNab’s teammate Doug Sulliman faced a different challenge.
“I wasn’t ready for all the abandoned cars that were stuck,” Sully recalled. “I couldn’t get on the ramp to go two miles to the Meadowlands.
“My ‘solution’ was to go on the other side of the road; I drove the whole way to the rink in reverse. To say the least; it was an adventure, but I got there.”
“We car-pooled knowing we had to leave early,” Daneyko remembered. “Get this; we left around 3 p.m. and got to the arena at 8:45 p.m; almost six hours.”
While the snow kept falling, chaos piled on chaos. Undaunted, my SportsChannel crew members began drifting in as well as the entire Flames team which had been staying at a nearby hotel.
Ah, but there was a problem; hockey is a six-man game and the Devils still didn’t have a full compliment of players to ice a team.
Meanwhile, the clock indicated that the opening face-off wasn’t far off; presuming that the game would start on time; which it would not.
Devils coach Doug Carpenter had a plan to stall for time. “Let’s keep hiding players — in the medical room and the stick room,” Carpy insisted, “because we’re not going out there until we have 16 or 17 guys.”
Sure enough, the Daneyko-MacLean-Cirella-Verbeek-Muller caravan finally arrived and now the Devils were ready to go; as were the officials and a handful of spectators.
Ah, the fans. And what in the wide, wide world ever made them think that a game actually would be played in the first place?
Well, Webster didn’t invent the word “Intrepid” for nothing so when it comes to arriving for a game — blizzard or no blizzard — fans will find a way. And that they did — with a lot of help from four-wheel drive vehicles.
Jeep owner Jo Anne Lambert figured driving was worth the gamble as did her co-rider, fellow Devils fan Ray Henry. They began their cross-Jersey expedition from Glen Rock and hoped for the best.
“Once we got going,” Lambert remembered, “we could see what we were in for it and driving wasn’t going to be easy. Cars were stuck; buses were stopped but we kept going and eventually made it.”
Andy Marlin — later to become team photographer — estimated that he could make it from his workplace in nearby North Bergen. “It took me three-and-a-half hours,” chuckled Marlin, “to go what normally would take 10 minutes.”
Even if the fans and players showed up, there could be no game without a referee and two linesmen. One of the zebras was Dan McCourt.
“After I drove from the Garden State Parkway onto the Turnpike, traffic stopped dead,” said McCourt. “To kill time I put on the radio thinking I could listen to the game but it wasn’t on.
“Eventually, I got to the arena a bit before 9 p.m. The Flames were there all right but not the Devils. So, we waited.”
So did Flames coach Bob Johnson, who got antsy about the 105-minute delay. But when he counted 16 Devils ready to play, he shouted, “Let’s get this thing going.”
As the home club skated out, the Devils were greeted with less than thundering applause. After all, how much noise could 334 supporters make?
Defenseman Daneyko looked around and muttered, “They’re the real diehards!”
The referee and linesmen were appreciative that the game finally had started and amused at the cavernous arena populated by so few humans.
McCourt: “Every time I yelled ‘Icing,’ or ‘Offside,’ my voice echoed throughout the building.”
As it happened the underdog, snow-rocked Devils upset Calgary, 7-5, and Doug Sulliman delivered a hat trick.
Arguably the best punch-line of all was uttered by Flames forward Jim Peplinski as he watched the hearty 334 individuals trudge toward the exits.
“Through snow and sleet, the fans came to see us,” Calgary’s ace concluded. “They should have been in the U.S. Postal Service!”
POSTSCRIPT: Getting home was no easier than getting there. My little Honda skidded up the long, hilly Turnpike approach to the GW Bridge but managed to reach the crest and from there it was easier driving home to the Upper West Side.
P.S.S. Sagely and with keen sensitivity, Devils PR — then led by the New York Post’s Larry Brooks — got the names of every one of the 334 fans.
The front office dispatched letters to the gallant loyalists with thanks, gifts and the promise that an official group would be formed.
And that’s how “The 334 Club” came to be and why existing members will be honored on this 30th anniversary of a strange but true hockey tale.
P.S.S.S. Come to think of it had the members of our TV crew and the arena workers been counted, it could have been renamed The 400 Club!