Manhattan takes on the suburbs when Rangers meet the Devils


NEW YORK -- Who am I rooting for? I was born in the city and live here now, but I spent 20 years in New Jersey. Who ever thought that the New York Rangers would have to take the Turnpike to the top?

In 1940! -- before the suburbs bloomed, when pro basketball was played on planks laid over ice so hockey arenas could stay lighted on off nights, when people were singing "You Are My Sunshine" and hoping that Hitler would leave them alone, when I was a teeny tot and the Rangers were champs of the world -- my dad would drive west over the George Washington Bridge and shout: "Everybody, duck. We're going through Jersey."

A city boy is he, and must be excused, especially now that the Devils are coming the other way.

"For us," said Bernie Nicholls, "the way to the Stanley Cup is through New York."

In 1940! -- Frank Sinatra had left Hoboken and Bruce Springsteen had not yet been born on the Shore -- there were no New Jersey Devils. In fact, there wasn't much New Jersey in the New York mind.

And now this. Beginning today, for the Rangers, the way to the Stanley Cup is through New Jersey. Count on at least one overturned tractor-trailer. The light at the end of the tunnel is a Zamboni.

This is more than a clash of cultural dynasties -- say, Celtics versus Lakers -- and far more than a mere class struggle -- White Sox versus Cubs -- or generational conflict -- Cowboys versus Oilers. This is nothing less than a symbolic struggle for the soul of the most important metropolitan area in the world.

The Rangers represent Manhattan, the imperial city, magnet and trap, tourists and predators, undeserving rich and squirming poor, where the tinted windows of limos dim the glare of the gutter.

The Devils represent the suburban dream, security and numbness, family and neighbors, the entire depth chart of the so-called middle class.

So many in the audience at Devils games (you can substitute Nets and Knicks here) are Jerseyans who identify with the Rangers because they think of themselves as New Yorkers in exile, driven from the city by cost and crime and inconvenience.

On vacation, they tend to fudge their hometowns, making it seem as though Montclair and Teaneck are part of the very upper, very West Side. The joke, of course, is that these Rangers and Devils, these symbols, are from Canada, Russia, Sweden and Finland.

But then New Jersey has been hip to symbolic jokes since it was likened two centuries ago to a keg tapped at both ends -- by New York and Philadelphia. The Garbage State. What exit you from? And the ultimate joke, yuppies from Akron stuffed into their upper East Side high-rises and Italian off-the-racks snickering at the day-trippers from Brooklyn and Hudson County as "the bridge-and-tunnel crowd."

It was during the 1968-69 season (Montreal blew the Rangers out the first round, 4-0) that I moved to New Jersey, driven from the city by cost and crime and inconvenience.

I came back during the 1988-89 season (Pittsburgh blew the Rangers out in the first round, 4-0.). I was sadly unaware of ice hockey those 20 years but I developed a New Jersey attitude, not unlike the one I had developed growing up in Queens.

New York is only New York. New Jersey is America. The only senator who could ever move without the ball represents New Jersey, which has world-class beaches, world-class slums, casinos, and no matter who you root for, your favorite New York football team.

Unfortunately, New Jersey also has a world-class inferiority complex, fed by shlock comics who grew up in Queens, Jersey and Akron, as well as a defensiveness because so many of its taxpayers earn their living in the city yet are afraid of it.

There is a pathetic willingness to put the city's conceits and celebrities ahead of their own. It's most vivid in sports, the only non-tragic drama that seems able to capture the general interest of a fragmented city or a fragmented state, and briefly bind the pieces of the mosaics.

Do you want the Devils to beat the Rangers, a slap shot in the teeth to the arrogance of cities?

Do you want the gallant Rangers to get past this toll booth and finally silence that mocking, half-century-old chant?

MA "Everybody, duck," said my dad. "We're going through Jersey."

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