Bitter divorce

PATRICK WILLIAMS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 11:56 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Fewer than 24 hours before the New Jersey Devils and Albany River Rats officially announced their divorce on Wednesday, word of the then-impending move caught New Jersey youngster Zach Parise by surprise.

Now, granted, normally the doings of the AHL affiliate is not the subject of much conversation in NHL circles with the Stanley Cup playoffs bearing down, but consider the Devils' roster for Tuesday night's game at the Wachovia Center against Atlantic Division arch-rival Philadelphia.

Nine players in the New Jersey lineup on Tuesday - including the likes of Patrik Elias, Colin White and John Madden, for starters - had Albany backgrounds. Another three Albany alumni did not dress for the contest.

Stretch the Devils' AHL ties back further and two more names that date back to the days of the Utica Devils, Martin Brodeur and the ageless Tommy Albelin, who also spent a brief time in Albany, are in the Devils' fold.

The lifeline of the Devils over the past 15 years or so has been the AHL. The stockpile of premiere talent that the Devils developed in Utica and in Albany formed the backbone of the Devils' Stanley Cup teams. AHL products who did not stick around to win the Stanley Cup with the Devils were packaged in shrewd NHL deals that imported talent from elsewhere to help put the Devils over the top.

So, there is a definite and real connection to the AHL and to Albany in particular on the New Jersey roster, even if, in the midst of a sixth season without the Devils' AHL prospects sampling Calder Cup playoff hockey, it is easy to forget that the Devils-River Rats partnership was once one of the best, if not the best, NHL-AHL affiliations going.

But when Parise was asked about what was then still a rumoured move, the personable NHL rookie replied with a genuinely surprised "Oh, really?"

Now, assuming a deal that would have the Devils purchase the Lowell Lock Monsters and send their prospects to Lowell goes through and is finalized, the best that the Devils would be able to do AHL-wise is to have bought an AHL franchise that has struggled at the box office for years, was for sale and sits smack-dab in the heart of Boston Bruins and NCAA hockey country.

How did what was once a model NHL-AHL partnership between the Devils and Rivers Rats deteriorate to such a point?

Parise, who put up an excellent 18-40-58 AHL rookie season last year in Albany, could not explain or even understand why.

"I don't know how (the River Rats' losing) happens," Parise admitted. "You know, it's not a lack of talent they have down there. To be completely honest, we had good players last year (in Albany). We had a good lineup. We struggled with injuries."

"The talent is there, but something is missing. I can't put my finger on it."

A good, forthright and direct youngster, Parise managed to find two positives from his own Albany experience.

One was head coach Robbie Ftorek, one of the most prominent figures in the River Rats' 13-year history and one who has been for the 1995 Calder Cup as well as now during some of Albany's darkest hockey days.

"I loved Robbie down there," Parise said. "He was good for me. He was a good skill coach."

Two, and in something of a roundabout way, all of the losing, Parise said, helps in the long run.

"You learn to be mentally tough...We lost a lot of games last year, and you have to keep it on an even keel. It's humbling. For sure, it's humbling. It does make you mentally tougher. You learn to cope with a lot of things."


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