Yogi Berra played baseball and loved it, but when the World Series ended he adored his hockey as much as a Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard — and he helped the New Jersey Devils win the Stanley Cup.
Yogi Berra played baseball and loved it, but when the World Series ended he adored his hockey as much as a Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard. I learned of Berra’s ice passion when he hosted a book signing for my Metro Ice, a history of New York hockey, at the Berra Museum in New Jersey. That’s when the Yankees icon told me that he actually skated alongside members of the St. Louis Flyers, his hometown team. When I shook my head in disbelief, he said, “Here; have a look.” Sure enough, in one corner of the museum there was a life-sized photo of Berra in an AHL uniform with Yogi looking every bit a stickhandler.
“As a kid growing up in St. Louis, I had a passion for hockey,” Berra told me. “I wasn’t supposed to listen to the games when I’d be in bed, but I kept the volume low enough so my Mom wouldn’t hear it. Sometimes I’d fall asleep during the play by play. “So, when the Flyers let me suit up and skate with them, it was like a dream come true.” As a Devils, MSG Networks broadcaster, I got to know about Yogi’s stick-handling passion even more. He was bosom buddies with New Jersey owner Dr. John McMullen, showing up at the club’s training facility almost every morning to work out with ‘Doc Mac.’ And when his Devs won their third Stanley Cup in 2003, Yogi saw a similarity between his Yankees and his favorite sextet and wrote about it in The New York Times. “The Devils typify teamwork,” he explained. “When I played for the Yankees in the late ’40s and early ’50s we were a team of interchangeable parts. “Our manager Casey Stengel platooned guys all the time. That’s how it is with the Devils with Pat Burns. All the guys knew their roles and nobody tried to be somebody they were not.” Berra, a New Jersey resident, frequently showed up in the Devils clubhouse, mingling with players. Whether Yogi knew it or not, the fact that he caught for 10 World Series Yankees clubs rubbed off on his hockey-playing pals. “Having Yogi around was a big, positive influence for us,” said lifetime Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko. “He was our good luck charm because he knew all about winning. His pedigree rubbed off on us and we loved that he rooted for us so dearly. Knowing that made us feel we couldn’t lose.” When Lou Lamoriello joined New Jersey’s high command in 1987, the new GM and Yogi began a life-long friendship. “Lou,” said Berra, “knew what it took to build a team and keep it running strong.” Lou affectionately remembered what a positive influence Yogi had on his players. “We loved having him in the room,” said Lamoriello. “He would sit on the couch with the players, having a cup of coffee and never wanted anyone to fuss over him. Yogi handled everything with grace.”