Punk Rocker Rankin Shares His Love for Devils | FEATURE – New Jersey Devils
How does someone from the seaside town of Santa Cruz, California fall in love with the New Jersey Devils? Well, for Russ Rankin, frontman of the hardcore punk band Good Riddance, it was actually quite simple.
“ESPN would show 2-3 NHL games a week back then and I would watch them all,” Rankin recalled recently via Zoom. “For some reason, that year, the Devils were on a lot.”
The season that Rankin is referring to was the 1987-88 campaign, which happened to be Lou Lamoriello’s first in New Jersey and one that would end with the Devils qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since relocating to the Garden State.
But before the Devils had come into his life, Rankin had already developed a passion for hockey. Like many American kids from his generation, even those from beach towns, the 1980 Winter Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice” were a turning point.
“That was the first I remember seeing hockey and I just fell in love with the speed and the violence and the color,” Rankin said.
From there Rankin was hooked. Although there weren’t too many games being broadcasted in Northern California in the 1980s – the Oakland-based Golden Seals had moved to Cleveland before the decade began – Rankin watched whatever hockey he could find.
And in 1987 he found himself watching a lot of Devils games. “I got used to the players and I liked the way they played,” he said.
“They were a gritty team but they had some skill. They had Patrik Sundström, Pat Verbeek, Kirk Muller, Brendan Shanahan and John MacLean. Jim Schoenfeld was the head coach and he was screaming at the refs every game and I just thought, I am on board with this team.”
By the end of the season, Rankin was committed to the team and his timing couldn’t have been better. For the last game of the season, the Devils were taking on the Blackhawks at Chicago Stadium. If the Devils won it would punch their ticket for the postseason.
Rankin remembers every detail. “They’re trailing late and John MacLean ties the game and scores on Darren Pang and I was freaking out,” he recollected. “John MacLean scored again in overtime and the Devils are going to the playoffs for the first time. It was rad. “
Things only got more rad for the bourgeoning Devils fan once the playoffs got underway.
“They upset the Islanders in the first round, upset the Capitals in the second round, and I couldn’t believe it and then they took Boston to seven games in the conference final and that was it,” Rankin said.
And he’s been a fan of the team ever since. Even when the NHL returned to Northern California in 1991 with the expansion San Jose Sharks, Rankin’s loyalty to the Devils was unwavering.
“I was locked into the Devils, but when the Sharks finally came it was rad because now there’s a local NHL team to go watch,” Rankin explained. “But I have to admit I was a little bit happy that draft year Eric Lindros went first overall, Scott Niedermayer is sitting there and the Sharks take Pat Falloon, so Niedermayer falls to the Devils so that was pretty cool.”
As Rankin got busier with music, it became harder to tune into Devils games, particularly during the playoffs when the band’s touring schedule was at its most hectic, but he always did his best to keep tabs on the team.
When Good Riddance was on the road in 1995 to promote its debut album For God and Country, the Devils were making short work of their opponents all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. With New Jersey looking to complete the sweep against the Red Wings to clinch the first championship in franchise history, Rankin was busy playing a show at a skatepark in Rockford, Illinois.
Although he was focused on his performance, Rankin had the Devils on his mind. After the band wrapped up its set, Rankin desperately looked for someone who could tell him the score of the game. Finding no answers at the venue, the band went out to grab a bite to eat. Rankin was praying that the drive through attendant at Taco Bell could elucidate things for him, but he struck out again. When they pulled over to spend the night in the van, Rankin just laid their staring up at the ceiling.
“I can’t sleep because I know they could’ve won the Cup and I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I was awake all night.”
The next morning, when the band went for breakfast, Rankin raced to the nearest newspaper stand he could find and hurriedly bought a copy. And that’s how he found out his Devils were on top of the hockey world.
“It was pretty surreal,” he said. “I remember telling people that if they ever won the Stanley Cup I’d get a tattoo, so they did and I got a Devils tattoo.” Rankin ended up getting the team’s emblem with some flames coming off of it inked on his inner left bicep.
When the Devils made it back to the Final five years later, Rankin was once again on tour, this time in Europe.
“I left home and the Devils were down 3-1 to the Flyers in the conference final and I thought ‘hats off to them, maybe we’ll get them next year,'” Rankin explained.
But a couple of days later, the tour manager for the band NOFX came up to Rankin and told him his Devils were still alive. And then a few days later he said it again and then he said it again. New Jersey had come all the way back to defeat Philadelphia and advance to the Final to take on the Dallas Stars.
As the tour continued, Rankin eventually found himself playing a huge festival at a car racing track in Germany while the Devils were battling for the rights to Lord Stanley’s mug. Following a performance, he was standing out in the field when he was approached by the then drummer for the ska punk band Goldfinger, Darrin Pfeiffer, who also happened to be a hockey fan.
Knowing Rankin’s allegiance, Pfeiffer said “You’re a Devils fan, right?” Rankin said yes and then Pfeiffer simply stated “they just won the Cup” and walked off.
“I’m standing in this German field and I’m freaking out because there was nobody to tell and anybody I do tell is not going to care,” Rankin recalled.
While Rankin didn’t always find too many like-minded hockey fans in the punk rock business, his friends and colleagues recognized his passion for the sport and encouraged him to find a way to get more involved.
“Since I grew up in a beach town, I wasn’t going to break into hockey as a player so I’m like what am I going to do,” he thought.
Luckily he knew some people in the hockey world, including Niedermayer, who he had befriended years earlier. At the time, the former Devils great was part owner of a junior team, the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League.
“Right place, right time,” Rankin explained. “Around 2006, California-born and trained players were starting to find their way up to the WHL. Suddenly the WHL is paying attention to places they never had before.”
So Niedermayer reached out to the Kootenay general manager and told him he knew a guy in California who knows his stuff and would watch games for the team. Following a good conversation with the GM, Rankin added hockey scout to his resume.
He scouted for the Ice for the next five years, winning a league championship with the team in 2011. The following year, Rankin joined the Tri-City Americans where he still serves as a scout today.
“My job is to watch California players, occasionally I go to Arizona for a tournament, to draft bantam-aged players,” he said. “I’m identifying players who I think are elite and could compete in our league and I’m trying to project what they’re going to be like at 17 or 18 years old.”
While Rankin relishes his role as a scout, at the end of the day, he’s still just a fan of the game. Although he’s still busy with music and touring, he’s a long-time Sharks season ticket holder and gets out to as many games as he can.
“I know how fortunate I am to live close enough to an NHL team and except for when the Devils come to town, I root for the Sharks all the time,” he said. “I want them to do well and for a lot of years they’ve been a really fun team to watch but they were never going to replace the Devils.”
With the Devils in San Jose this week, Rankin is looking forward to seeing them play in person.
“I’m enjoying them round into form and seeing them come together this season,” he explained. “It’s really nice because I saw this coming for the last two to three years and everybody’s talking trash about the Devils and I’m like ‘they’re not playing well right now’ but in my head ‘I’m saying just wait.'”
Putting on his scouting hat, Rankin rightfully attributes a big part of the team’s resurgence to the emergence of Jack Hughes.
“He has unreal hockey sense,” he said. “The crazy stuff dudes try in practice, (Hughes) tries it in games and believes he can pull it off. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t, but I feel like we’re watching something really special with that player.”
But Rankin knows Hughes can’t do it alone.
“If they stay healthy, I don’t know if this is the year for them, but this is the year they’re putting the league on notice,” he said.
Rankin hopes that trend will continue this week. He’s had the game circled on his calendar all season.
“It’s the one game I don’t root for the Sharks,” he said. Instead, Rankin will be there in his usual seat, sporting an old, beat up red and green Devils jersey, cheering for the hockey team he fell in love with more than three decades ago.
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