Apologies in advance to New Jersey Devils fans for anything I am about to write.
This is not a knock on you. There are some incredibly dedicated and passionate "Devils advocates" out there. The Devils Army was in full force Saturday night and if the series returns to Newark on Wednesday, they will no doubt pile in and be louder than ever.
They should be. They have something to cheer for. Over the last two decades, the New Jersey Devils have enjoyed almost unparalleled success (the Red Wings have also put together a nice little 20 plus year "hot streak"). Management has found and implemented a proven formula. The players they have brought in have done their jobs and bought-in better than most throughout the league. Even their work in the community has been extraordinary as they try and create an atmosphere and fan base that can match their on-ice product.
Yet despite doing everything right, for whatever reason, hockey just may not work in New Jersey.
Make no mistake, the Devils are very much alive and well in this series. Unfortunately, long term, that doesn't appear to matter. When a franchise wins the Stanley Cup, there are sure to be positive effects on every aspect of their business. In almost all cases, even the League will find the bright spot to any given market winning the game's greatest prize.
When Tampa and Carolina won their titles before and after the lockout, it gave the game vibrancy in markets that it lacked prior. Detroit won in 2008 at a time it seemed like things couldn't get much worse for a city in economic ruins. The game helped the people, and when the Wings gave the people something to cheer for, they came out, which helped the game. In recent years the success of the Blackhawks and Bruins gave huge boosts to the growth and development of the sport in these more traditional markets. Winning in Boston and Chicago helped encourage a new generation to get to the rink. It also helped heal relationships between ownership and an older generation who had slowly gotten away from it. I am a bit of an optimist. I try and find positives in everything. But in New Jersey, I just don't see it.
My family and I attended Game 5 on Saturday night. This is not an attack on the city of Newark or the Prudential Center, just basic facts based on our experience. Transportation was less than ideal. The area around the rink was less than desirable. The atmosphere inside the Arena 30 minutes prior to game time was less than exhilarating.
Now this is just one fan’s take. All I can compare it to are other similar experiences. I was in Detroit in 2008 for the Finals against Pittsburgh. That is how I know the Devils potential crisis is not solely about economy and neighborhood. The experience works in Detroit. I was in Boston again for the Finals in 2011. The atmosphere inside and out of the Arena was electric from about 4pm on. It worked. It just did not look or feel the same in New Jersey.
In the end, we had an amazing night. It is difficult not to be when you combine great company with great hockey. That said, I now better understand why it is tough for the Devils to sell seats and when you cannot sell seats, you cannot operate a professional hockey team.
There are those who believe if the Devils won the Stanley Cup, they could still lose their franchise. I am not sure about that. I haven't researched the numbers and don’t know the local government’s commitment to the team. What I am fairly certain of is that a win for New Jersey would be less impactful than a win would have been for almost any other market at the start of these playoffs. This is the case for a number of reasons. It is the location. It is the economy. It is the fact that they are not an expansion franchise who can easily use winning to bring new fans out to see and experience something exciting and different – nor are they an Original 6 franchise who can bring old fans back with another Cup run.
They are “just” the New Jersey Devils. The same New Jersey Devils I have known my entire adult life. They play an effective and efficient brand of hockey. Most importantly, they win. That should be enough in any northern market to bring fans out.
To survive in the NHL you need to either be successful on the ice or have a dedicated and invested group of fans off of it (Toronto will sell, win or lose). Usually, if you win, they will come. The problem in New Jersey is the Devils keep winning as they have for decades, but the people still are not coming.
Unfortunately, in New Jersey, history has shown us they never will.
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