The fifth in our 118-part series:
The scene: it’s preseason, 1996, and the denizens of stately IPB Manor are attending their first Devils game as season-ticketholders, and only our second-ever Devils game in person. We decide after the typically uninteresting preseason match ends to wander the grounds a bit, get the lay of the land in our new home away from home. And as we circle the CAA, we come upon the players’ entrance, where a scant handful of fans is standing and waiting for the scant handful of actual NHLers who are at the arena that night. We decide, as newbies, to wait a few minutes (this was the first and last time we ever did this, because, well, asking hockey players for autographs is a really unrewarding social interaction). And before long one of the rookies emerges from the arena, is not stopped by any fans for autographs, strides across the sidewalk to his cranberry-red Explorer, and drives off. Despite not having a very clear idea of his identity, we decide he was Jay Pandolfo, and for some reason, seeing him that night makes us kind of feel like we were all rookies together at the same time. He proceeds to spend the next three seasons making very little impression on the big squad while honing his game in the AHL in Albany.
The scene: it’s January, 2000. The Devils are in Detroit, playing one of those regular-season games that feels like a playoff game. The Devils have had too many guys on their roster all year, and Pando is one of the interchangeable forwards who has been scrapping to get a permanent place in the lineup. He is skating tonight, and remains, with the exception of that sighting at our first game, completely off our radar. He’s always seemed like a nobody to us; a guy who, when asked once if he golfs, said he does, but only because he wants to fit in with the other players on the team. He just smacks of wallflower, the kid none of the cool kids want to have to hang out with. But back to the game… At one point Pando and his linemate Sergei Brylin both head deep into Detroit’s zone to chase a puck (this was, apparently, back in the ancient times when Pando went deep into the offensive zone. He clearly learned his lesson), and in typical Pando fashion, he somehow ends up smashing head-first into the glass. It looks at first like maybe he was boarded, but there aren’t any Red Wings around — it is more like he somehow conspired to nearly kill himself in the most embarrassing manner possible: by tripping over his own feet all while being crunched hard into the boards by the smallest player on his own team. The long and the short of it is, though, that his massive forehead gets split wide open. The Wings skate away from the incident with the puck, dart down the ice, and score on the play. All hell breaks loose. The Devils are furious that a goal was scored because the play was clearly offsides. Then-Devils coach Robbie Ftorek famously throws the bench onto the ice in protest. The linesmen later admit they weren’t paying attention and missed the offsides call because they were so distracted by Pando, who had picked himself up from where he’d been bulldozed and skated, under his own power, back to the Devils bench with torrents of blood streaming down the front of his face and onto the ice. He is immediately rushed into the dressing room for repairs, but Ftorek, in his screaming fit at the officials, demands to know why the whistle wasn’t blown when Pando went down, and decides to drag Pando out of the dressing room to show off to the refs exactly how demolished his face is right now. So Pando comes back out of the dressing room, rivers of blood still gushing out of his forehead, and stands there with this hilarious hang-dog look on his face, like, “Yeah, Coach, whatever you need, I’ll do.” (Except Pando says, “Whatevah you need,” because he has an awesome Boston accent.) And it is in this moment that we realized we’ve been wrong about Pando. He isn’t a loser. He isn’t a nobody. He isn’t an interchangeable part. He is a winner. He is a god. He is THE interchangeable part. And we love him.
PandoNation was born that night.
After getting 84 stitches in his forehead and spending a little roster-clearing time on the IR, Pando emerged as a regular in the lineup, and he and John Madden asserted themselves in that Spring’s Stanley Cup run as the preeminent pair of checking forwards in the league. Madden — modestly high-scoring for a defensive center — got a lot of the credit in the early going, but if you really paid attention to the way they played, it was clear that Pando was the straw that stirred the drink. He didn’t score much, he wasn’t the guy going head-to-head with the big-name scoring centers, but he was the motor. And his unimpeachable positioning and smarts made it possible for Madden to take the occasional gamble shorthanded.
Over the years PandoNation has swelled in numbers. First it was his teammates, who just keep handing him the “Unsung Hero” award each season, then it was John Davidson on MSG, then it was Doc… and now it’s enough people with influence that he actually got to be a finalist for the Selke Trophy. What he’s done over the last seven years is really staggering; ever-so-quietly, without ever trying to drag attention to himself, he’s established this relentless, selfless game. He never gets a shift off — he’d probably never want one — and every time he takes the ice it’s with the sole purpose of shutting down the other team’s superstars. Other defensive forwards earn their praise by going down to block shots, or winning big faceoffs, or scoring shorties, or throwing big hits. Pando does none of these things. He is an average skater with a lousy shot, so he spends his time on the ice outthinking his opponents. He plays the angles, controls what the other guy can do with the ice he’s given. Pando doesn’t want the puck — he’s happy to let the other team skate all night with it, because he’ll make sure they don’t ever get a decent shot or scoring chance. And he does all of this without taking penalties. When he’s on his game he’s invisible, but in such a way that he makes the big guns he’s skating against invisible too. Pando is, in short, subtly awesome.
For how selfless his play on the ice is, it’s no surprise that Pando is the very picture of “team-first” attitude. He shies away from interviews, and when asked about his personal accomplishments, squirms and demurs that he’s gotten to this point in his career thanks to the great play of his teammates and to his coaches. When his contract comes up for renegotiation, he must be Lou’s favorite guy to have to deal with. We would not be surprised to find out that Pando would prefer to skate without a name on his sweater. Or a number. Just a second Devils logo on his back. And he’s always been like this: back in his high school days at Burlington High School in Massachusetts he and his teammates decided to get their numbers shaved into their hair in the lead-up to a big game. Pando’s barber, though, screwed up and shaved his number 9 backwards onto his head. (This is the part in the retelling where we thought to ourselves, “Nice try, Pando, blaming a ‘barber’. Way to not be able to shave a 9 into your hair right, loser.”) But Pando was not at all concerned. He just had that backwards 9 turned into a “B” for Burlington. And he probably felt a lot more comfortable that way, too.