One of the most defining moments in the Stanley Cup final game of 1995 was a big tough guy sitting on the New Jersey Devils bench weeping. The tears just came pouring out of him uncontrollably as he wept.
He wasn’t crying because the Devils were losing. He was crying because he was thinking at that moment that the original New Jersey Devils, Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver and John MacLean, were about to win their first Stanley Cup. This moment was the moment these original Devils had been waiting for and Mike Peluso was witnessing it firsthand.
To him, it was the most beautiful moment he had ever experienced. He wasn’t thinking about how his team was winning the Stanley Cup in that moment. He was thinking about the original Devils winning their very first Stanley Cup. He became so overcome with emotion, he couldn’t leave the bench.
Before that moment on that bench in 1995 when Peluso’s emotional outburst of tears made Devils history, he was just a kid growing up in Minnesota…never believing that he would one day be sitting on the bench crying his heart out watching the New Jersey Devils win their first Stanley Cup.
He didn’t grow up watching NHL moments on television. He wasn’t like most kids that grew up idolizing certain NHL stars. He grew up idolizing his older brother, Gino.
“He was not a good skater like Niedermayer, but he was gifted,” Peluso said of his older brother. ”I looked up to him at the start. In Northern Minnesota, we only got three channels, so we didn’t get the game. Once in a while on Sundays, we got the Flyers game. Bob Kelly did the games. I don’t know if you remember Peter Puck. He’d come in with his cartoon.”
It was Peter Puck that he said was his favorite. That’s as close as it came to what made him fall in love with the game as far as stars were concerned. When it came down to an actual person, he responded, “Doug Wilson for me and my brother. I didn’t get a lot of channels.”
This was also the 1960′s and early 1970′s. Cable and satellite TV didn’t rule evenings at home. Out in northern Minnesota, life was really about the community.
“We didn’t have cable TV. I don’t want to sound like a hardship case. We only got three channels. Every once in a while we got Channel 8 out of Midgie, and that was Sesame Street. We did get on Sunday Bob Kelly. We got the Flyers game and Peter Puck and that’s when I watched some games on TV.
He watched his first hockey game in the late 70s. Possibly some time between 1976-78.
“Bob Kelly was actually announcing and then they’d have the Peter Puck guy come out on the ice.”
“We had college hockey and high school hockey. We followed that. There wasn’t really that much pro-hockey until the Stanley Cup. With 3 channels, hockey really wasn’t a big sport. We followed the North Stars. I’ve been a big North Stars fan my whole life. I’d go down once and a while. My Dad would take me to Met Center and watch the North Stars play. But it was mainly college hockey that I followed.
“Minnesota is kind of environmental. Everyone is kind of raised on skates, snow and ice so everybody plays hockey. We had a lot of outdoor rinks. All of the northern Minnesota’s little small towns had big ice rinks, so it’s kind of environmental where you grow up. People are born with skates on their [feet] so that’s how it all began there.”
“I started when I was about five,” he said of his early hockey beginnings. ”I was a short, fat kid. I liked playing in my boots because I was always better in my boots, but then guys got a little quicker so I switched to skates.”
“We had youth programs…house league programs. I think it’s just Minnesota. You’re just born in the environment of hockey. It’s just part of your life.”
“We all played [hockey],” Peluso said of his family. ”Dad was real supportive. We had mite hockey, pee wee hockey. The parents are just very influential. First of all, putting equipment on you and then hockey is somewhat like Canada in Northern Minnesota…the environment, the cold weather and the ice rinks…it’s just part of life. It’s part of what we are. Everybody plays.”
Peluso always looked up to his brother as a hockey player. His brother had a lot of talent. So why didn’t he end up playing in the NHL?
“My brother Gino, he was a really good hockey player. I think he just had a lot of scholarships, but he just maybe perhaps chose the wrong school. He went to the University of Minnesota and never really played. Then he just went four years and then he played a little bit, but not as much as they promised him. So he just really didn’t develop. The fact [is] he didn’t get the chance to play.”
Peluso ended up going to the University of Alaska.
“It was the only scholarship I ever had. In Northern Minnesota, if you didn’t get a hockey scholarship, you just went into the mining company and worked, because the mining company is booming.”
“I don’t want to sound like a hardship case here, and I’m not. My parents couldn’t afford college. But that was our goal…to get a scholarship. My brother got a scholarship in baseball. My brother Gino got a scholarship in hockey. I got a scholarship at the University of Alaska. But it was the only scholarship offer I had so I took it.”
Like many players, Peluso didn’t always start off on offense. He started his hockey career playing in a different position.
“In college, I was a defenseman. I had some really good offensive numbers in college. When the Blackhawks signed me, they started going around me, so they threw me on the left wing. It’s like right field in baseball. They put me on left wing because I didn’t have the footwork.”
After his time in college, he ended up going to play in Chicago for their minor league team.
“I just actually quit playing,” he said after he left college. ”I just didn’t think I would ever make it. My Dad asked me if I would just tryout for a team. I tried out for the Blackhawks and had a good training camp. I was making $100 an exhibition game. I got into the lineup and had a good training camp. I ran their first run draft pick and then I got noticed.
“[Mike] Keenan called me into his office and he said, ‘Who are you and where did you come from?’
“And I said, ‘I played at the University of Alaska.’
“He says, ‘Do you know how close you are to making the Chicago Blackhawks?’
“I said, ‘No, I don’t.’
“He says, ‘Well, I’m going to give you a three-year contract in the minors and a one-way contract if [you] make it up.’
“I played every exhibition game. I think what set me aside was…I didn’t know if anybody fought. I thought everybody fought. Steve Thomas got cross-checked against St. Louis. I just reacted. I just said ‘Fuck it. We’re down 5-2.’
“It’s not who I am. I wasn’t trying to make the team, so I went over and fought him. And that’s when it kind of hit me that’s what I was supposed to do. Then the next night, I beat the shit out of Kelly Chase. I was fighting everybody. I didn’t even realize what I was doing. I was just reacting to who I am. Then the next thing…I got a contract.”
Peluso didn’t fight to win a contract. That wasn’t his motive.
“I never did anything to get a contract. I just did it out of instinct.”
“I started off on defense and then they started going around me…my footwork…so Keenan moved me to left wing. He wanted to find a place for me. It’s like right field in baseball!
“I remember when I was playing on defense, Keenan says, ‘Peluso, get up here.’ He put me on [Jeremy] Roenick and [Steve] Larmer’s line. We were in Buffalo. They dumped the puck in, I ran someone over and that’s how I became a left winger.
“I certainly wasn’t going to become a defenseman in the National Hockey League. I thought I had quick feet in college. But oh my god, guys started going around me. They wanted to find a place for me but it wasn’t defense.”
By moving him over to the left wing he said it was “less responsibility.”
“I could forecheck. I could hit. I don’t have to worry about playing defense in the National Hockey League. It’s very difficult. You can’t run out of position. You have to have good angles, good footwork. Playing defense in the National Hockey League I believe is harder than playing goalie.
“All I had to do was get the puck in. Because you make a mistake on defense…it’s trouble, because you are the last man back.”
Peluso’s first year as a left winger netted him over 320 minutes in the penalty box. The following year, it was 408 minutes.
“Well, I got my ass kicked a lot in the minors. I remember my first game was against Salt Lake City. It was Calgary’s farm team. Rick Hayward was supposed to be the big tough guy. He lined up on a draw with me and he says, ‘Hey, college boy.’ I say, ‘Oh, fuck.’
“I actually kicked the shit out of him. Now, I’m a marked man. Then I got my ass kicked after that.
“Butch Cassidy came up to me and said (as he brought my gloves and my stick to the penalty box), ‘You just kicked the shit out of the toughest guy in the league.’ He says, ‘Oh my god!’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can keep doing this.’
“That was my role and I had tough coaches. Sometimes I just wanted to quit hockey, but I stuck it out.”
After Chicago, he headed off to Ottawa during the expansion, where the fans fell in love with him.
“I went from fourth line to third line to second line. Even though we didn’t win a lot of games, I moved up. It’s gratifying to be able to have more of a role than just that role [of enforcer]. I think everybody wants to do that. I scored 15 [goals]. I just got more of a responsibility.
“I think if expansion hadn’t come in, I would have been out of the league. But expansion came into the league and I was able to continue my career and take on more of a role. I think if Ottawa and Tampa hadn’t come in, I probably would have been done after five years. That’s just the way it worked. But expansion continued my career, so I owe a lot to Ottawa. Our +/- wasn’t very good. Someone said that our +/- was like the climates of the Northwest Territory in December.
“I want to be a plus player. I have always been a plus player, but after Ottawa, I never could work my way out of the hole. It took me ten years to get it to +19. I take it personal when I’m on the ice when there’s a goal scored. The people don’t look at the scores or how many goals they scored, they look at that +/-.”
Peluso was originally drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1985. Even though they drafted him, they never gave him a contract. But after watching his success in both Chicago and Ottawa, they traded for him.
Peluso spent most of his career bringing his A-game against New Jersey because they didn’t sign him back in 1985. He fought the Devils. He did things to get under their skin. When they traded for him, he realized that he would be facing these guys in the locker room.
“I was really nervous,” he said of going to New Jersey. ”I had pains in my stomach when they made the trade. I’ve had a lot of battles against them. I think Lou [Lamoriello] always wanted a guy who could fight but could also play. It was nerve wracking. I always dreaded going to training camp that year because I was just really nervous.
“Then Ken Daneyko and Randy McKay pulled me to the side and said ‘We’re glad to have you on board.’ I kind of loosened up. Then I got relaxed and I was on a line with Randy and Bobby Holik.”
Daneyko said that when the Devils used to go down into the Flyers territory for a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. Everyone was always scared of playing the Broad Street Bullies back then. For Peluso, playing for Ottawa was the same feeling.
“Not that it didn’t bother me. Now, I’m coming to a team who wins and is established with a great group of guys and Jacques Lemaire. I played my best years while I was with New Jersey.”
Lemaire has been one of the most amazing coaches in the history of hockey. He has Stanley Cup rings to prove it.
“Jacques never screamed or hollered so it was nice. I’d always had coaches that screamed and hollered ‘go out there, you know what your job is don’t you?’ I got the fucking tap on the shoulder from Keenan many nights. He kicked me in the back in Chicago and he says, ‘What have you done all night?’ I says, ‘Well, fuck, I haven’t been out on the ice. What am I supposed to do?’ So he says, ‘Get out there.’”
“I’ve always been accustomed to guys that were in your face. Jacques wasn’t. He actually made hockey fun, positive and beautiful. I’ve always had screamers. I’ve had guys that kicked me in the back. And I didn’t mind that. But to get Jacques…”
“Jacques called me when I got to New Jersey. ’Didn’t you play center in Ottawa?” I said, “Oh, hell yeah!” I didn’t play center! You never tell a coach anything like I hadn’t played a position. I said, “Yeah, I played defense. I played center and I did a little goalie too!”
“As a player, three things that stand out in my career is playing in the Chicago Stadium. I mean, that rink was incredible. The Stanley Cup in New Jersey was #1. Playing in the Chicago Stadium and then being an Ottawa Senator, because if it wasn’t for the Ottawa Senators in their expansion year, my career probably would have been shortened. The Chicago Stadium is not even close to the Stanley Cup, but it was important.”
Summing up his time with the Devils, Peluso said that it was the best time of his career.
“The best group of guys I ever played with. I thought I had a great group of guys in Chicago. It didn’t compare to the ’95 Devils. A lot of fun. Some cocktails.”
“It’s nice to get paid good money for something you love…and that’s the ’95 team.”
Other great memories he shared all lie with his first goal. You never forget your first goal.
“I do remember my first goal in Detroit. I batted in a fucking rebound from Troy Murray. It was funny because Michel Goulet took me out for some beers, and he’s a 500-goal scorer and he says, ‘I really don’t remember all the ones that were in between, I only remember my first one and my 500th.’ He says, ‘You’re not going to get to 500, but let’s have a drink to the first one!’”
After his tenure with the Devils, Peluso headed out to St. Louis, where he said he enjoyed his time.
“Keenan had traded for me. The year was good. We had a really good team on paper, but we had this conflict between Brett Hull and Mike Keenan. Either Brett Hull was going to be traded or Mike Keenan was going to get fired. We had a really great team. They were going back and forth. We were good on paper, but the chemistry wasn’t there.”
“There was always this feud in the paper between Mike Keenan and Brett Hull. Something had to give.”
Keenan was the one to go.
As Peluso continued to go from one team to the next after his stint with New Jersey, he says he started to lose his edge, especially while he was in Calgary.
“Jersey is where it all started,” he said of his best years playing hockey.
Peluso was injured when he was hit from behind during a game in Carolina while he was with the Flames. When he returned to Calgary, he discovered some stiffness in his neck. They took an MRI of his neck and then told him his neck was really bad. The injury was very similar to Gary Roberts’ injury.
Peluso joked that you fuse the 50-goal scorer’s neck, not the fourth liner. You send the fourth liner to the glue factory (Ken Daneyko joked). That injury ended his playing career.
Later, he ended up working as a scout for the Edmonton Oilers, while returning to his home in Minnesota.