In part two of the Throwback Thursday series featuring Ken Daneyko, he shares his Growing Up Hockey story. This story defines why he is called Mr. Devil.
“I was born in Windsor, Ontario,” Daneyko said as he began his tale. “But I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. [We] left when I was six and a half years old to Edmonton. In Windsor, my dad would freeze the backyard and we would start skating. My first experience as a four year old, I got on skates and went head first on the ice…stitches in my head, so I didn’t have a very promising career starting off as a player.
“I still have a little scar to this day right on my forehead. My mom was like, ‘Oh my God, I know everybody plays hockey in Canada, but if this is the way it’s going to be….’ She hated blood and panicked.
“My dad, born in Germany, never knew [anything] about hockey. My dad was a soccer guy. But when it came to Canada, he knew he had a lot to learn about hockey. He didn’t speak English until he came to Canada. But he made ice in the backyard, which would freeze over all the holes….we were very blue collar. He was just trying to make his way over in Canada coming over from Germany, so it was a lot to give us a little place to skate. I had an older brother who played hockey as well.
“My parents were just supportive. They never pushed. They just saw they had a kid that was a fanatic. I told them many times. I told my mother since I was seven years old every day, fifty times a day, I was going to play in the National Hockey League.
“As much as I was a blue collar type player and a hard worker in the trenches of the National Hockey League, I was pretty good growing up. I was pretty talented like a lot of kids in the NHL. I was offensive when I was young. I was ranked the best defenseman in Edmonton when I was 14 years old and in offense too.
“I look back. I reflect now. Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, I was a fanatic.’ I wanted to play so darn bad and nobody was going to tell me differently. I had a lot of self doubt. Believe me. There were kids better. There were 10 Ken Daneykos in every corner. That was true in Edmonton.
“My dad worked for the Canadian Airlines and worked for the airlines for 30 years. It became Air Canada and now it’s Canadian all in one. He came from Germany at a young age on his own to Canada. He started off in baggage for CP Air, up on to supervisor. That’s what he did his whole life right up until retirement. We got some good deals on flights on stand-by.
“But I’ll never forget, even though I was a Toronto Maple Leaf fan growing up, we were growing up in Windsor, my first six my years, my dad…the Canadiens would always come through Windsor to go to Detroit or coming back to go to Montreal…he’d get me John Ferguson’s stick…or Richard’s stuff…and I’m so mad I used them as road hockey sticks. I never thought I’d collect them back then. But it was pretty special. I’d wake up in the morning and I’d see a real game stick that John Ferguson [used]. It was pretty cool early on in my early years.
“I used them as road hockey and on the ice up until they widdled away to a little sliver and I regret that now because I have such a deep perspective of players before me. I’d love to have those sticks now. But yeah, that was my dad’s way of showing me that even though he didn’t know a whole lot about hockey that he knew how much I loved it. I was sitting in my room like I was a kid at Christmas every time.”
Going back to his years in minor hockey ranked as one of the top defensemen in Edmonton at 14, he was playing in the Bantam As.
“I still always underestimated myself,” he said of his younger years. “Everybody was telling me I was pretty good. I had the determination and drive. I had that fear of failing all of the time.
“I went right from Bantam and I thought I was going to stay in Edmonton and play midget hockey. You get put on a protected list of tier-1 for junior teams and there’s no draft or anything. The Ontario League might have done it. In the Western League, you were put on a protected list. The Great Falls Americans, who lasted all of half a season, had me on their protected list. I always wanted to be on the Portland Winterhawks, that was the big team and somehow they missed me.
“That put me back the same, maybe I’m not that good, because the Winterhawks always got the best Edmonton kids. Always did. Well, what about me? I was ranked. Somehow Great Falls got me. They thought I was ready to go play tier-2 junior. They asked me to skip midget.
“Whatever it took for me to advance, there was no thought process. You think it through. They think it’s going to help me. It’s the next best thing for me…I’m going to listen. But my mom didn’t want me going. She just wouldn’t even hear my grumblings. I told my dad, ‘There’s no way she’s going to let me go.’
“He took me to meet the coach, who drove to Edmonton to pick me up, Jerry Bolt. I’ll never forget it. My dad said, ‘Don’t say goodbye to your mom because I know she’s going to not let you go.’
“He said, ‘You go ahead. If this is what you want, son, for your life.’ My dad was very quiet, and a stern German man like the Eastern European guys. He said, ‘Son, if this is what you want to do with your life. If you think this is a stepping stone, even at 14, I’m going to trust your judgment.’ That’s the way they did it back then.
“I said, ‘Dad, this is what I want to do.’ He says, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to take care of your mom.’
“That was a great learning year for me. I went to Yorktown. I was one of two 15 year olds in Saskatchewan hockey league playing 17, 18 and 19 year olds. It was scary at times. It was a tough, nasty league, but a great part of my development. I lived with a great family there. I played every game that year and survived it somehow. I know we had 77 players. Players went home all the time because it was nasty, too tough. Guys get homesick and say ‘forget it, I’m not going to play in this league.’
“I played only one year in tier-2. I went to Great Falls. I moved to Spokane. Played for Spokane Flyers. Played for the Western League, again another step getting closer. That’s all I cared about…those steps to get there.
“I played in Spokane as a 16 year old. First year in tier-1 in the Western Hockey League. As a 17 year old, which is my draft year, because I was going to turn 18 that summer, I played half a year up until Christmas and the Spokane Flyers folded.
“I ended up going to the Seattle Breakers. That was the second half of the year.”
“You get more notice on good teams like the Winterhawks. The Winterhawks were always getting scouted…I was always pissed thinking I’m not getting enough recognition.
“But I went to Seattle and we were kind of a lunch pail crew like our Devils. We made the playoffs. We weren’t supposed to.”
This was the time when then Devils scout Bert Marshall discovered Daneyko and followed his team around for the last month of the season and during the playoffs in his Winnebago. He was the man responsible for putting his career on the line and telling the Devils to pick Daneyko in the Draft.
The Devils didn’t want to draft Daneyko. He was essentially an unknown. He wasn’t ranked.
At the time, there were 21 teams in the league. The Devils had the 8th and 18th pick. Marshall had to convince them to pick Daneyko.
“I saw Glen Sather about five years after I retired,” Daneyko said. “I knew Glen through Mark Messier. Mark was instrumental in my career. Through Mark, since I was 13 or 14 years old, I used to go to hockey schools of his dads. Mark always took a liking to me. He loved my heart and my drive, so I learned so much from him about leadership, about what it was going to take to play in the National Hockey League.”
“At 22, Mark had such leadership he wasn’t afraid to tell Slats at 21st overall pick, because they had won the Cup, he says, ‘I’m telling you, if this Ken Daneyko is there at 21, you’ve got to take him.’
“Sather said, ‘Thank God, the New Jersey Devils took you 18th, because I would have never lived it down, because I wouldn’t have taken you at 21st, because Mark would have killed me.’”
Both Messier and Marshall knew that Daneyko had the staying power to play 15+ years in the NHL. They both saw the drive in him to be a NHL player. It was a gamble for the Devils to pick Daneyko, but it paid off in the end so well that Marshall still scouts today for the Carolina Hurricanes.
“He told the New Jersey Devils, ‘He’s going to play 15 years. I’m telling you.’ And they’re rolling their eyes.”
He told Daneyko, ‘You outdid them. You played 20 for them. You outdid what I said to them. But I’m still scouting. We’re very grateful to each other.’
Messier is 4 or 5 years older than Daneyko and played an instrumental part in his learning years. They became great friends.
“I loved that I was going to New Jersey, because I knew they weren’t that good. I thought that gave me a better opportunity.”
He had a great training camp that first year. He played in all the exhibition games. They kept him on the first 10 games, but he never saw his first NHL game. They sent him back down to the minors.
“I was crushed. A lot of 18 years old want to go back and don’t think they’re ready. I had the opposite mentality. I was ready now. They weren’t very good. I felt like I could play. I wanted to play as soon as I could.”
The next year, at 19, he made the team and played in his first game at Madison Square Garden. They lost, but he had an assist in his first game. His mom was there at that first game.
“My mom was always glass half empty. She says, ‘Kenny, why do you always think to put all your eggs in one basket? It’s so tough to make the National Hockey League.’ She wanted to believe in me. She came to my first game. She flew to New York. She hated big cities. She’s a little petite lady and wanted to get back to Edmonton and the little outskirts we lived in. She flew back from New York and said, ‘I don’t care if that kid plays one more game. He told me every goddamn day he’s going to play in the National Hockey League…’ She couldn’t believe it. She was beside herself. ‘He really did it.’ She was kind of shocked.
“That was kind of cool.”
Daneyko has told the tale many times of how his third grade teacher called his mother to ask her to talk to him about not disturbing his classmates while they were doing their work. He would finish his work early and then tell the rest of his class that he was going to play in the National Hockey League when he grew up. His mother told the teacher not to tell him he couldn’t play in the NHL, not to crush his dream.
“My mom went back after New York, went back to the school to the same third grade teacher and Ms. Aldman said, ‘I know what you’re going to say. I remember it like it was yesterday. I’ll never deter another kid. Your son played last night. We’re so proud of him.’ Because everyone in Edmonton knows your business, especially for hockey.
“My dad was just proud. Very old school. What I respect…he trusted my thought process. He trusted what I was doing. He would always just support it. ‘Son, if you believe this is what you want to do, go ahead.’ No parent would have let their kid…I’ve got a 14 year old boy, an 18 year old girl…I wouldn’t dare let them go at 15.”
“That’s what I appreciate now,” he said of his father trusting him. “The little grin on his face told it all [after the first NHL game].”
Last season, both of Daneyko’s children sang the National Anthem at a Devils game. His son wasn’t that interested in playing hockey growing up. He was more interested in acting and singing.
“He is total opposite of me. I adore him. That’s what I learned from my dad. Whatever he’s passionate about, I support it. I don’t know a lot about [acting/singing], just like my dad didn’t know a lot about hockey at the time, so he never interfered. I don’t interfere. It’s kind of relatable because I know how tough that industry is to make it. He’s in the right area, but people that know a lot more than me tell me he’s got a ton of talent. He acts, sings and does all that. He’s been doing it since three and loves it.
“I just support him and it’s so unique to me.”
He felt bad when his son would go to the games and people would ask if he played hockey like his dad. For the longest time he told his dad to tell people he played hockey. He played sporadically. It just wasn’t his passion.
“I would do that for him and I’d always take him to the side and say, ‘Shane, it doesn’t matter. I want to reiterate I could care less.’ Some parents aren’t like that. Or athlete parents, guys would put that pressure on them too. But I was like, ‘Shane, I love what you do. It’s so unique to me and you’ve got a talent. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket or have the guts to go on stage at 14.’
“When he was 12 years old, he’s 14 now, I’ll never forget, at the Rock, fans came around and asked that same question. He goes, ‘Nope. I’m an actor and a singer and that’s what I love. I love coming to the games, but it’s just not my thing.’
“He became a little man, because he felt comfortable and confident. I was proud of him to say what he wanted to do.”
Daneyko realized during this interview that the way he supported his son was exactly the way his father supported him when he was a kid.
“I didn’t even realize it until I said it out loud,” Daneyko said laughing. “But I learned from my dad, make sure you’re just supportive in whatever they want to do. My dad didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
Even though Mr. Daneyko didn’t know anything about hockey, he was there to see his son play in every game. He supported him. He never booed him or criticized him. He loved going to the games and watching him play. He always said ‘Good game,’ no matter what the outcome.
“My dad was the perfect medicine for me,” he said of the support. “I was hard enough on myself.”
As far as Daneyko’s favorite moments of being a New Jersey Devil, he says the key moment for him was being drafted by them. The second key moment was his first game at Madison Square Garden, becoming a Devil and making the NHL.
“One of the greatest moments was going through some lean years in ’88 and making the playoffs, and making the run we did. That was special. It was like winning the Cup.”
“I can’t believe we celebrated as much as we did just making the playoffs,” he said. “We were a young group. We didn’t know any better. We didn’t know how to react.”
“When you’re in it, you don’t feel it as much as when you’re out of it,” he said of the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup.
“I know the fans in New Jersey. I feel like I kind of was that perfect fit in New Jersey. My personality…I fit like a glove. Fans love me. They love me to death. I’m grateful for that. I think they relate to me. I’m one of them. I’m just a regular guy that worked his tail off and wanted to play in New Jersey and wanted to be part of something that when we started from crap, when we were the Mickey Mouses, or we were the little brothers of New York…the afterthought, I wanted to be part of something. I think the fans appreciate that.”
At the end of his career, he knew when it was his last game.
“I knew that was it. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for weeks. I went around the ice about three times, banging on the glass, saying to all the fans I knew that this was the last time they were going to see me on the ice in a Devils uniform as far as being a player…unless it was alumni.
“I absorbed it. I really got to absorb it. That was as special as anything. The fans knew when I was banging on the glass. Everybody that I knew, knew this was it. What a run! 20 years. Three Cups. Played with great guys, great teammates. That’s what was all coming back to me.”
Three years later, the Devils retired his jersey.
“I was really humbled by that,” he said of those moments at the end of his career. “What it showed me was a blue collar guy…I’m not trying to sell myself short, I kind of served a pretty important role here, but I know I wasn’t Scott Niedermayer…I had a purpose and a role. You work hard.”
He said that this says something about the Devils organization for young players coming in. You don’t have to be a superstar to be honored. You just have to work hard and play your role. It is appreciated by the organization.
He says he still gets choked up when he thinks back to that night they honored him by retiring his jersey. 19,000 fans cheering for him…that was a special moment.
“I hung out with them all. I had a beer with them all, because that was me. That was my personality. I appreciated them.”
“I’m just a blue collar kid that didn’t know [where New Jersey was]…I wanted to play one game in the league and to play 20 years, 1283 games, and 175 more in the playoffs…it was…WOW. How the hell did I do that? Here in New Jersey.
“I wear the NJ proudly. You tell me anything negative about it and I’m gonna probably smack you.”
This describes perfectly why he became Mr. Devil.
“That just kind of happened.”
“How did I become Mr. Devil?” he asked himself. “I’m pretty proud of it.”
“I want the guys here to succeed,” he said of the Devils players. “They’re following in my footsteps.”
Daneyko is now a TV hockey analyst for the Devils, the NHL Network and MSG Networks. Being an analyst isn’t just about bringing his knowledge and experience of the game to the masses, it also allows him to learn more about the game…to be a constant student of the game. It’s something he enjoys doing.