Commentary

The Devils have a new arena, but will there be buzz in Newark?

Updated: November 2, 2007, 2:14 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

With the $380-million Prudential Center finally open in Newark, and the New Jersey Devils getting their due for a change on the facilities front, the NHL has gotten rid of another dump.

[+] EnlargePrudential Center
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesThe Devils opened up the new Prudential Center last Saturday.

Long live The Rock.

One by one, they're leaving the NHL.

Good riddance.

They are those arenas from the early '70s to early '80s wave of construction, the ones that were billed as state of the art when they opened but seemed obsolete before the Zambonis needed oil changes.

Joints like, but not necessarily limited to, the Omni in Atlanta, Reunion Arena in Dallas, Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, McNichols Sports Arena in Denver and Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford.

When the 1980 All-Star Game was played at the brand-spanking-new Joe Louis Arena, and the highlight was Gordie Howe's introduction and ice time in the uniform of the Hartford Whalers, the powers-that-be had just figured out the original design had not even included a press box. As appropriate and logical as that might seem to some, it set the tone, and the Joe has been only decent at best -- I'm talking the building, not the atmosphere -- ever since.

When I attended the 1982 news conference on the ice level of the Meadowlands arena that celebrated the arrival of an NHL franchise in New Jersey, the building had been open a year, and echoes remained of the Bruce Springsteen show that christened it with considerable class.

On that day, everyone involved -- from the sports authority, to politicians, to Devils owner John McMullen -- crowed that the franchise, a mess during its days as the Kansas City Scouts and the Colorado Rockies, instantly would become one of the hottest draws in professional sports.

It never was.

No question, the building wasn't the only reason, but it had something to do with it. It came from that bad-timing era. At The Rock's opening the other day, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told assembled members of the media that the Meadowlands building -- variously called Brendan Byrne Arena, Continental Airlines Arena and now the Izod Center -- was ''a building with no soul that was in the middle of a parking lot.''

That sounded like a man who had never ventured next door to the racetrack to play the daily double or had any fondness for Giants Stadium, but he wasn't far off the mark. And it sounded like a man who has seen the key role that arena and stadium construction has played in the revitalization of downtown areas from coast to coast, and the energy that can be transferred into the buildings.

Arenas from that Meadowlands time, whether isolated or otherwise, should have been functional longer than they were and had (have) what in retrospect seem to be concourses so narrow, they're jammed in the middle of the second period.

Luxury boxes? Few and tiny, and not luxurious at all, mostly tucked between the lower bowl and the balcony.

The slightly earlier buildings, such as the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the (Never Was) Fabulous Forum in Inglewood and what now is called (the-soon-to-be-razed) Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, had excuses. The timing was off. Those that qualified as the wondrous buildings of yore -- Maple Leafs Gardens, the Montreal Forum, the Boston Garden and the Chicago Stadium --- at least oozed tradition as you alternately exclaimed, "Wow!" and, at least in a couple of cases, "Rats!"

The current Madison Square Garden, opened in 1968, isn't just in that gray-area period but defies any logic at all. On the functional level, it seemed so outmoded and ill-designed from the time it opened, you felt and still feel as if you should head to Toots Shor's, Jack Dempsey's or the Stork Club after the game. (You needed a drink to get over the anxiety of almost being trampled in the backup at the top of the escalator.) Now, on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel and Holland Tunnel, the challenges are for the Devils, and their fans, to put and keep life in a New Jersey building.

That's accompanied by distinctions, including the fact that it's presumptuous of folks with access to press passes to pass judgment on consumers' decisions on whether to fork out wince-inducing amounts of money for hockey tickets, or tickets to anything else.

For a myriad of reasons, including many I'm sure I've never figured out in my many visits to the Meadowlands but have been driving locals nuts for years, the Devils often have seemed to be held at arm's length, if noticed at all. Last season, the Devils' official average attendance of 14,176 was 26th in the league, and the percent of capacity figure (74.5) was better than only those of Chicago and St. Louis.

Those predictions of season ticket rights being fought over in probate and divorce proceedings, those nightly sellouts that might come with empty seats for the Tuesday game against Columbus but with the knowledge that every ticket had been bought and paid for?

They drew OK in the Meadowlands, and I've heard from and saluted enough Devils fans to know that the core is as fervent, loyal and knowledgeable as any in the league.

So I'm not "blasting" anyone.

But the deal is, if a franchise as successful as the Devils' has been over the past 14 years had been such a lukewarm draw in one of the, ahem, "non-traditional" markets, the criticism would have been unrelenting, along the lines of what we have heard of late in discussion of the Nashville Predators' plight. (Yes, with a team that had only three more points than the Devils last season, the Preds' average attendance of 15,259 and capacity percentage of 89.2 both were significantly higher.)

Transfer the long-running success of the Devils and their "low" attendance to Florida or Nashville or even Atlanta, and we would have heard, whether from folks who write for newspapers based in Manhattan or Toronto:

For heaven's sake, they can't even sell out every night for a good team!
Those people probably don't even know the color of the blue line!
Proof positive that the NHL should contract -- or go to places that appreciate the sport!

Now, I suppose, we should be bracing for the excuses tied to The Rock's location in downtown Newark. Sitting 2,000 miles away and not having ventured to the new arena yet, I can't speak to that, except that it takes time for evolutions and revitalizations to take root, and for stereotypes and even irrational fears to break down.

But the Devils have gotten their due.

A new arena in which they are the primary tenant.

It's still barely 10 miles from New York's City Hall, but it's a world unto itself. Let's hope it holds up as the much-praised, much-copied model for the next wave, and that we're not shaking our heads soon and saying, as we were for the previous generation of arenas: What were they thinking?

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."