Believe it or not, there was a time in the New Jersey Devils history before Lou Lamoriello became the general manager and team president. That time between 1982, when the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey, and 1988 has largely been forgotten except for a few moments. One of the most infamous and long lasting memories was when Wayne Gretzky called the Devils a "Mickey Mouse organization" way back on November 19, 1983.
"Well, it’s time they got their act together. They’re ruining the whole league. They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on the ice."
It's a pretty straight-forward shot at the team; and not the sort of thing you hear a player say right after a game in pro sports. I can understand it being acknowledged by the Devils in their own history. (Note that's where the above quote came from). It was a standout moment amid a dreadful 1983-84 season where they only won 17 out of 80 games and only finished ahead of Pittsburgh, who then got somebody who wouldn't win as many Stanley Cups as Claude Lemieux.
Yet, it's strange that it's lasted even to this era where we're not used to seeing the Devils miss the playoffs every season. Even during Devils' playoff run in 2012, the "Mickey Mouse" quote by Gretzky has been referenced in articles at the time. For example, there's this one by Larry Brooks in the New York Post, where he cites it as a low point of the team. Here's a second example in this Reuters article at Yahoo! Eurosport. Speaking anecdotally, there are some fans who are still sort of bothered by it - nevermind that it was so long ago. I can certainly understand that the Devils haven't always got the respect they deserved; but one would think it would just be left in the past. I guess it's different when the greatest player ever name drops a famous Disney character to slam a team after a huge win. It's not like it happens every day, which would possibly explain the over-hype of otherwise small things in all sports by media.
In any case, I decided to look to see what happened in this game. All I really ever known about it was that Devils got destroyed by the Edmonton Oilers. Fortunately, there's a highlight video available on YouTube featuring what happened on that fateful night. Unfortunately, it's a little under 13 minutes of watching the Devils get pounded to the tune of 13-4. It's not exactly fun to watch, but it's a good example as any to really highlight how bad the Devils were then, how awesome the Oilers played, and get some background as far as why Gretzky said what he said. I took some notes after the jump, so please continue on to witness the infamous.
Opening: And welcome to the 1980s! Take note of the lack of ads on the boards; the Oilers logo is outside of the center circle; and the home team is in white. At least the Edmonton benches are still facing away from the camera and looks strange and familiar. Ron Low is your starting goaltender and the announcer notes that he's a former Oiler. Keep this in mind for the very end. As the television graphic highlights his 4.35 GAA in 9 games in 83-84. That's not a typo; he was giving up 4 goals on average. And he was about to face the Edmonton Oilers. Eep.
0:29 (All times are on the Youtube video): Hockey-Reference tells me that Cameron is Dave Cameron. He just tapped in a puck from a pass off a wide shot and in behind Grant Fuhr for the game's first goal. Notice how far Grant Fuhr was from the crease. Among other lessons, learn this: goaltending in the 1980s looks absolutely terrible compared to goaltending in future decades. Also: #22 with the sweet 'stache is Grant Mulvey. Devils are up 1-0.
1:01: Jan Ludvig with a bomb from the point and it beats Fuhr! The Devils are up 2-0! On the road! With a shot that if it got past any goaltender today, then he'd be laughed out of the league! Do you believe in...
1:57 - 2:03: Kevin Lowe just dances around the defending Devils as if they were pylons and slides a killer pass to a wide-open Gretzky in the slot. Pass, shot, score and it's 2-1. The goal was Gretzky's, but Lowe made it all happen with lovely moves. You may be seeing this and asking yourself, "Hey, how come no one was covering Gretzky?" I know I was. I don't have an answer.
2:27: After a replay, a graphic shows that the goal was Gretzky's 25th of the season. That's right, it's mid-November and Gretzky already had 25 goals. Think about that for a moment. And then ask yourself again, "Hey, how come no one was covering the goal scoring machine?" Again, I don't have an answer.
2:33 - 2:36: Low makes a save off a slapshot. The Oilers recovers the rebound in the corner and Willy Lindstrom equalizes with a one-timer in the slot - possibly through a screen. It's 2-2 and things are about to go from bad to worse real soon. By the by, the guy who fed Lindstrom? Gretzky.
2:57: While the game has changed, diagonal passes through the zone remain dangerous. One finds Jari Kurri on the flank, but Low stacks the pads. It was an impressive stop on the legendary winger.
3:02: You know what else remains dangerous? Passes through the slot. Gretzky slides it in between three Devils to Kurri, who's wide open in the left circle, for a one-timer that beats Low. The Oilers are now up 3-2. And before you ask, yes, this is all in the first period. Note that nobody was near Kurri despite getting a glorious chance on the same side seconds earlier. I know it was a power play goal, but even back in the 1980s, I'm pretty sure coaches tell their guys to not leave the weak side open.
3:31: One of the #4s on the Devils before Scott Stevens was awareded to New Jersey was a defenseman named Bob Lorimer. I can't tell you much about his career, but I can tell you just made a big mistake coughing up the puck behind the net. Maybe it won't get slammed back in New Jersey's face...
3:34: ...oh, it was. Willy Lindstrom struck again. Oilers up 4-2.
4:16: So it's now the second and period and, wow, already a goal against Fuhr. A slapshot from Jeff Larmer finds it's way through the five hole and in. I wonder if Kevin Weekes will deny selling him this shirt if he ever sees this. Anyway, it's 4-3 Oilers. That looks respectable. A very poor New Jersey team still within one, finally answering for four straight against to start a second period. One would think they could be on their way up. They got something to build on. Something to believe in.
4:37: John MacLean sighting!!! This was MacLean's first year as a Devil, and, well, he's learning why the Devils were able to pick him so early.
4:52: Aaron Broten with a neutral zone stop!
4:58: Aaron Broten with a, uh, blind and tactical back pass to his defenseman, Bob Hoffmeyer!
5:00: Hoffmeyer with a pass that trickles past his target to the blueline!
5:02: Kurri takes it and chips it high and ahead for a now on-side Wayne Gre..oh no.
5:05: Oh no.
5:07: How did that one-timer not go in? Wait, it's still alive. Oh no.
5:09: (sees Kurri breaking in) Oh no.
5:12: (sees Kurri make the pass to a standing Gretzky) Oh no!
5:14: (sees Low lunge and miss) Oh noooooooo
5:15: 5-3 Oilers.
5:36: Here's a lesson from the replay of that goal - defenders falling down usually spell disaster. Especially if they're nowhere near the play.
5:51 - 5:54: The long pass bounces off the helmetless Phil Russell and right to...Gretzky. It's a two-on-one, pass, shot by Lindstrom, score. A hat trick for Willy and a 6-3 Oilers lead.
6:23: Oh, it's another two-on-one, this time led by Kurri. Hmm, I think the line had Lindstrom, Kurri, and...oh, yeah, Gretzky.
6:26: Kurri waited for the defender to fall down, got the pass across, and it got knocked into the net off Joe Cirella's skate and through Low. Kurri with an accidental second goal of the night and it's 7-3 Oilers. It's only the second period, by the way.
6:53: A Devil stops a Gretzky pass on offense! Whooooooo! OK, I know it's only a highlight video so perhaps there were more stops in the game; but at this point, I half expect every pass coming from #99 to lead to a score.
7:00: The announcer says there's about 15 seconds left in the period and the Oilers will have to hustle to get something. Well, yeah, but they're up 7-3. Surely they'll just play out the clock.
7:01 - 7:09: Paul Coffey literally goes end to end with the puck and scores with four seconds left in the period. Seriously. I have no other words for what I just watched but: 8-3 Edmonton.
7:23 - 7:26: Of all the goals allowed, this one may be the worst one by Low. It wasn't that much of a shot by Coffey. But feel free to roll your eyes at #21, Hoffmeyer, for getting torched here.
8:12: It's now the third period and, woah! Goal out of nowhere by Paul Gagne! Gagne fools Fuhr with a long wrist shot. Was Fuhr particularly weak to long shots, or was it just an off night for him? And again, I notice he's way out of his crease. Fortunately for Fuhr, his team was up five goals so this bad goal didn't mean much.
8:35: OK, turnover on offense. That's unfortunate, but surely the Devils can recover. Wait, who's got that breaking through the middle?
8:38: Great, it's The Great One. But, wait, there's a defender! Maybe he can slow down...
8:39: What a fake-slapshot-to-the-backhand pass by Gretzky. Just smooth.
8:49 - 8:52: Oh no, no, no, no, wait! It's not a goal! Success! Also: Hello, Chico! Ron Low was replaced by Glenn Resch in the second intermission. Poor Low, he got shelled.
8:54 - 8:58: Is that? Could that be? Yes! A Devils breakaway! And it's the young wave of the future John MacLean! Yes! Yes! Yes!
8:59: Woah! Fuhr made a big stop! Again, I know these are highlights but this is the first really big stop.
9:33 - 9:41: Now this was some inch-perfect transition hockey. Every pass was on target, the Devils defenders were rendered useless, and poor Chico was out of sorts with that give-and-go with Gretzky and Kurri. It ends up on Kurri's stick on the goalie's flank and it's 9-4. By the way, it's a hat trick for Kurri, the second for Edmonton tonight.
10:08: Gretzky may not be strong (he never was), but he could control a puck at the blueline well. His spin kept his team onside and led to acres of space. Not that Edmonton had any trouble finding space all night long, apparently.
10:11 - 10:13: Gretzky's keep-in gets to Jim Playfair, who easily moves it to the slot without a challenge - also a common theme tonight for NJ - and fires a shot. Chico stops him but it trickles behind him. Kurri (also not challenged) cleaned it up to make it 10-4, good buddy.
10:17: Kurri just looked so unimpressed after that. Or that he can't believe it. Either works.
10:49 - 10:52: Really, Chico? You let up that long shot from Jim Playfair? Not that it means much down seven; but that was a pretty bad miss with the glove. Fun fact: that was Playfair's first goal of the 1983-84 season.
11:53 - 11:58: The hits kept on coming from Edmonton. A big defensive check led to a breakout for the Oilers. Lee Fogolin led the rush, hit Kurri with a cross-ice pass that went between two Devils and seemingly bounced, and Kurri gripped and ripped it from the sideboards. A Devil defender bangs his stick on the ground, Chico looks out of sorts, and I'm facepalming. Kurri's fifth (!!) goal makes it 12-4 Edmonton.
12:00 - 12:04: Glenn Anderson forechecks Hoffmeyer and wins the puck. He feeds it to his fellow forechecker, Wayne Gretzky. You should know how this ends, but I'll tell you anyway. The Great One dekes, gets around Resch's stick, and scores his third of the night. 13-4 and that's it in terms of scoring. In a word: Barf.
I know it was essentially a game highlights video, but the plays featured say it all. Part of that is the era. I got the impression that if you could skate and can make slick passes, then you just tore up opposing teams unless they got hot or you were just off on a night. Kurri, Lindstrom, and Gretzky alone crushed the Devils in this one; and it's not like the Oilers were devoid of talent beyond them. I know goaltending and defense in the 1980s were both worlds apart from how they are now or even in the late 1990s. Fuhr, Low, and Resch were just reacting to shots instead of trying to position them. The Devils defenders resembled pylons and looked all kinds of useless because they just tried to react to the superior Oilers team. I understand that team concepts like the neutral zone trap and positional play wasn't being done; but I'm pretty sure playing off and away from top scorers wasn't the strategy either. The Devils were simply pathetic in this one, despite getting some early and hilarious-looking goals.
Of course, what gets remembered about the game is Gretzky's quote. "Mickey Mouse." If I was blogging then, that would be ridiculous as there was no such thing and I would have been a little over seven months old then. But if I had a time machine, saw this game live, and wrote about it here, I would have been a lot meaner than Gretzky. I wouldn't just agree with him, but claim he didn't go far enough. They played as if they were piece of paper and the Oilers were a squad of pens. New Jersey were the Generals and Edmonton were the Globetrotters. The Devils walked into Edmonton with a knive in what was to be a gun show. You get the idea. The Devils played like garbage rejected from the city dump and it wasn't uncommon in those days even taking into the style of hockey of the day.
The YouTube description has a fuller quote from Gretzky that puts the Disney reference in better perspective. I tried to verify it, but I'm inclined to think it's valid. It is in line with the research Bruce McCurdy did in this Copper & Blue post on the night from the Oilers' point of view. (Aside: Bruce linked to a boxscore of the game. Yeah, it's really bad for the Devils here.) Here's the quote from the video:
According to the Sun the comments went like this: Gretzky found it no fun running up the score against his old friend Ron Low. (Gretzky): "It got to the point where it wasn't even funny" "How long has it been for them? Three years? Five? Seven? Probably closer to nine. Well, it's about time they got their act together. They're ruining the whole league. They better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on the ice. I feel damn sorry for Ron Low and Chico Resch."
In addition to dropping 8 points in a 13-4 win over them, Gretzky pretty much summarized the early years of the franchise. The Kansas City Scouts were horrible and then they moved to Colorado. The Colorado Rockies were also horrible and are really only notable for making "Rock and Roll Pt. 2" a thing and giving Don Cherry a head coaching job. Now the team moved to New Jersey, it's their second season as the Devils, and they were just abysmal. As the Devils own history article notes, the Devils lost 17 of their first 19 games before this one. Not that many would have expected the Devils to beat a high-scoring Edmonton squad in their own building; but at least they should try to be competitive after being in the NHL for many years as a franchise. At some point, the franchise has to get to that next level, and yet they still were getting rolled on a regular basis. Throw in the fact that Gretzky was friends with Low, his former teammate who just got victimized on most of the eight goals that got past him, and I can see why The Great One would be disgusted. Again, I would have been more livid.
I can see why Devils fans would be upset, but it's not like the team did much to prove him wrong. Who likes seeing an opponent dog your favorite hockey team? No one, even if they totally deserved it after that horror show of a game. So I can understand the Devils faithful showing up when the Oilers visited to jeer Gretzky (and then seeing the Devils lose that game in a close one). The Devils would go on to have the worst regular season record in franchise history in 1983-84 and miss out on Super Mario at the same time. It would be four more seasons before they would make the postseason for the first time. It's not like the Devils players heard this quote and worked to turn things around; that didn't happen. At the time, the quote made sense as it struck nerves. What I don't understand is that it still has some life to this day. 1983 was a long time ago, and the Devils have been a competitive team at worst and regular contenders at best over the last 20 years. But, again, I guess quotes from legendary hockey players that help feed a narrative have a longer shelf life.
In any case, even if you don't care about the quote, I hope you enjoyed how bad the Devils were back in those years most don't like to talk about. I have to say, if you were a fan of this team in the early 80s, then I salute your patience and resilience for putting up with those success-barren years. Now I want to know your thoughts. What do you think about the infamous quote? After watching the video, what did you think of the play involved? How different did you see the Devils and Oilers? Are you still fathoming how different the goaltending and defensive play was back then? Do you get a sense of how great The Great One was? Lastly, why do you think people still reference that "Mickey Mouse" with the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts related to the video, the game, the quote, or the pre-Lou Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.