Only one professional sports team is named after a 300-year-old devil. When the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey in 1982, they traded mountain peaks for the boggy swamps surrounding the Brendan Byrne Arena, and needed a new nickname. Local newspapers ran a contest, and more than 10,000 fans chose the nickname Devils – named after the state’s most twisted, violent legend.
Why would New Jersey, the second-most Catholic state in the country, name their only professional sports team after Satan? As a character, the devil is sarcastic, sly and driven by revenge: pure Jersey traits. In a state known for political corruption and backstabbing that would make The Sopranos blush, a devil is the perfect mascot. Steeped in churchgoers who love their rosary beads as much as they love their smack talking, New Jersey wants to keep its evil close. Catholics can’t get enough of the devil. Ever hear of The Exorcist?
College teams like the Duke Blue Devils and the Arizona State Sun Devils play on similar demonic imagery. But their representations feel campier, less evil than face-painted hockey fan Puddy from Seinfeld screaming “don’t mess with the devil” at a priest. Other than the Northwestern State University Demons and the DePaul Blue Demons, the most hellish current squad is another New Jersey team, the Fairleigh Dickinson University Devils (until 2002, they were actually called the Jersey Devils). Their logo is a sleek, horned devil in a high-collared jacket.
College teams might be willing to tempt fate, but why aren’t there other professional teams named the Devils? One might expect that the dark, dead-ball days of baseball would have been home to spooky nicknames, but teams like the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and the Worcester Ruby Legs were more creepy than scary. When it comes to professional sports, you can be attacked by Raptors and Grizzlies or swarmed by Hornets. You can try to hide from Raiders, Buccaneers and Vikings, and fear the arrival of Lightning, Hurricanes and the Avalanche. There are even Lions, Tigers and Bears – but the undead and demonic aren’t really represented in major pro sports. Sure, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms play minor league hockey in the American Hockey League and the Cincinnati Reds minor league affiliate the Louisville Bats actually do have a winged mammal as their logo, but nothing too spooky in the NBA, MLB, NFL, MLS or NHL.
The Devils nickname seems to curse the few teams who dare choose the name. After nearly a decade of poor seasons, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the “devil” from the name – and then promptly made it to the World Series. The Los Angeles Red Devils played in the National Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA. Although they went 13-3 in 1946 and had Jackie Robinson on their roster – the Jackie Robinson, previously a star at UCLA – but the Red Devils only lasted one season.
Deep in the state’s Pine Barrens – a densely-forested, mossy and marshy swath that seems like another country compared to the state’s suburbs, cities and shore points – lies the birthplace of the Jersey Devil. In 1735, Mother Leeds was pregnant with her 13th child, and suffered terrible labor. She called for help from the devil, and finally gave birth to a boy. Yet the child soon transformed into a beast, with horns, wings, talons, and covered in thick, dark hair. The devil killed its family and then escaped through the chimney, wreaking havoc in the New Jersey backwoods until this day. Quite the horrific origin story for a NHL mascot.
But that’s not even the whole story. The tale of the Jersey Devil has more twists and turns than Route 1. Mother Leeds was a descendent of Daniel Leeds, a Quaker turned almanac-publisher, whose son got in a feud with the one and only Benjamin Franklin. Franklin penned some particularly nasty rumors about the Leeds family, which might have evolved into the legend of the devil. Franklin isn’t the only historical figure associated with the legend. Former King of Spain Joseph Bonaparte – Napoleon’s brother – reported a sighting of the devil during a hunting trip.
Jerseyans don’t spook easily, but this little demon has gotten under our skin. The Jersey Devil is often mischievous, known for dancing on fences and leaving hoof-prints on snowy roofs, but occasionally returns to the violence of his birth. He’s caused some real damage, ransacking farms and butchering dogs, chickens, and livestock. During one hellish spate of sightings in 1909, factories and schools closed. Reports have become infrequent, but he remains a tale told by older generations.
The nickname seemed like a curse during the Devils’s weak early seasons, but after three Stanley Cup championships, some thought a more respectable, less demonic name would be better. An assemblyman who happened to be a Baptist Deacon moved a resolution to change the team name “in order to promote greater honor and respect,” but it fell flat. The Devils were here to stay.
One person who laughed away the push to change the nickname was Lou Lamoriello, the Devils’s longtime president and general manager. It’s impossible to talk about the Devils and not recognize Lamoriello’s force in shaping the franchise and culture. He was there through the lows – Sports Illustrated once described the Devils as “more serious than C-SPAN and watched by about as many people” – and the highs. One of the team’s Stanley Cup wins, in 1995, was famously thanks to their neutral-zone trap that some people say “ruined hockey,” complete with one of the greatest goalies ever in net and a suffocating defense that, if you somehow slipped past, was anchored by the hard-hitting Scott Stevens. The Devils captain put the fear of the Lord into opposing players.
Lamoriello was said to have run the “tightest ship in the hockey business,” resulting in “maybe the best, and certainly the eeriest, NHL franchise.” For years the team would not allow players to wear number 13. Goalie Martin Brodeur’s nickname was “Satan’s Wallpaper.” Dark arts were the name of the game for the Devils: a long-running joke was that the franchise was called the Firm, like the John Grisham novel. According to defenseman Ken Daneyko, “We meant it in the sense that once you’re in, you can’t get out. You won’t leave on your own terms.” That’s either team loyalty or something far more sinister.
Whether it is a marriage made in hell or heaven, New Jersey is stuck with their Devils. An often scrappy, often dangerous team on the ice, the Devils have earned their title. Wayne Gretzky once called New Jersey’s “a Mickey Mouse operation on the ice.” Now that seems like ancient history. Someone should have told The Great One that the devil always gets even.