NEWARK -- There was a feeling of renewal here on Thursday. A fresh start, and one that appears to be starting off in a very competent, businesslike manner.
Given the circus-like atmosphere of the Devils ownership situation over the last year or so (the team's trip to the Stanley Cup Final coincided with initial rumors of financial trouble) and the previous owner's troubles with the city of Newark seemingly since the club moved there from East Rutherford in 2007, Josh Harris and David Blitzer were a breath of fresh air as they took a controlling stake in the club from Jeff Vanderbeek (who will remain a minority partner) at a press conference at Prudential Center.
You got the sense that these men are here to run this team like a business, something that this club badly needs in the wake of the previous administration. You had rumors of debt piling up in the tens of millions, unpaid rent, the Ilya Kovalchuk situation... this was very much the start of a new chapter. And thank goodness for the Devils, a team that could use a fresh start as much as anyone.
This is very much a franchise that is headed into some transitional seasons, on and off the ice. Patrik Elias, the club's all-time leading everything offensively, will likely be gone after his recent three-year contract expires. Martin Brodeur (who will be usurped by Cory Schneider) and UFA signing Jaromir Jagr probably won't make it to 2014-15. Their captain is a 37-year-old mid-level (at best) defenseman. The team has made some other free agent signings (Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe) that will likely bridge the gap toward a prospect crop that is loaded with defensemen, though only Adam Larsson has consistently made the big club. They will be fine, even a playoff team, but this is not the Stanley Cup Final team of 2012.
It's a team, more or less, searching for an identity on the ice, so Thursday was likely a good day for the franchise to relaunch their identity off of it. Harris and Blitzer, as well as new team CEO Scott O'Neil, appear ready to finally find a way to promote this franchise properly. It's one of the things that's dogged the club since their days at the Meadowlands, and since Lamoriello started building them into one of league's elite organizations. They built it, but the fans didn't come.
There are a lot of reasons why the Devils haven't drawn, and they aren't all to blame on Lamoriello's stinginess when it comes to promoting. This is a franchise that's fanbase is on average probably closer to, say, Adam Henrique's age (23) than Martin Brodeur's (41). The Devils were winning their championships while much of their fanbase was in high school, and many of which are just now finally starting to gain their own income.
A lot of people, I think, forget that building a fanbase in New Jersey is a lot different than in Phoenix, or even in Columbus or Minneapolis, or any market when you come in as the lone hockey franchise. When the Devils got here, there were already three teams -- the Rangers and Islanders, and to a lesser extent, the Flyers -- that had much of New Jersey's loyalty. Dr. John J. McMullen, the man who brought them here, was either going to have to convert people who had lifelong loyalties, or wait for their kids to grow up.
The time is now for guys like Harris and Blitzer and O'Neil and Hugh Weber (a former New Orleans Hornets president who will serve in a similar, business-only capacity here) to cash in on that. The first generation of Devils fans, at their oldest, have likely started having families and careers and their own disposable income. You have to activate them, use them to create a larger season ticket holder base, and continue what Jeff Vanderbeek's team had done to make the franchise more fan friendly.
Make no mistake, if there was one thing Vanderbeek did right aside from the obvious (the arena), it was finding a promotional identity for this club. The team started to promote itself on buses and billboards as "Jersey's Team," playing off residents pride in their home. Given that the state's other franchise was headed for Brooklyn, it was very effective. When I spoke to O'Neil on Thursday, I definitely got the sense that he wanted to continue that.
"If you look at the numbers over the last three years, they're getting better. The team did a pretty good job. But yeah, we'll put a little elbow grease into it," O'Neil said. "I'm really bullish on the North Jersey market. You've got 21 corporate headquarters, disposable income numbers are off the charts. I don't have the numbers on this, but I imagine if you carved out North Jersey, it would be the ninth largest market [in the U.S.]. You'd bet on that any day of the week and twice on Sunday."
The Devils sold out 22 of 24 games last season at The Rock. That kind of percentage will not happen again without a lot of O'Neil's "elbow grease." Fans in New Jersey (and really, most northeast markets in general) are apathetic about teams like Edmonton and Calgary and Phoenix. That's just how it is. So they'll have to get creative.
Their work with the 76ers suggests encouraging ideas. Harris mentioned that the club had done a "76 craziest fans" promotion with the basketball team, which allowed contest winners free tickets in their own section. The team also cut ticket prices, which Harris says is "on the table" for the Devils and probably a must, particularly for lower level, "premium" seats. They also reconnected that franchise with its past, which is something the Devils can already do easily, given that Scott Stevens is an assistant coach, and Lou Lamoriello's penchant for signing former players.
New Jersey is a market that works, as long as the team is run in a fiscally responsible way. They have a solid TV contract with MSG, attendance has gotten better in the past few years (despite the club having missed the playoffs two of the last three), and the fanbase is young and, as mentioned, starting to gain disposable income. Whether or not the team is a Stanley Cup contender in the near future, Harris, Blitzer and O'Neil appear to have brought in a team ready to cash in on what Lamoriello built in the past (as Blitzer infamously put it, his "secret sauce"), while allowing him to make the future look a little better.