Thursday, November 8, 2007

Brian Leetch and Cammi Granato among 2007 Lester Patrick Trophy recipients

Even though the birthplace of ice hockey was in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1886, the growth of the sport in the United States has been made over the course of the 20th and now 21st centuries. As one of the Original Six teams in the National Hockey League, a man that played a major role in establishing the New York Rangers as one of the most prominent franchises in professional hockey was Lester Patrick.

For those of you who aren't familar with the legacy of Lester Patrick, I'd catch up up to speed before I get to this year's award recipients.

Just two years after the Rangers' inception into the NHL, Patrick suited up six years removed from his retirement as a professional hockey player and played as the team's goaltender during the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals due to an eye injury suffered by starting goalie Lorne Chabot. At the time this took place, there were no backup goaltenders dressed to play. He was the Rangers' coach and general manager at the time and his heroics at age 44 helped defeat the Montreal Maroons for the first of their four championships in franchise history.

Even though Patrick's playing career was in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), he would end up in New York to begin running the Rangers in their inaugural NHL season in 1926. Before he did, he and his brother Frank had founded the PCHA in 1911 to rival the NHL and other major hockey leagues. As their coach, Patrick led the Rangers to their second title in 1933 and as just their general manager in 1940. He left the organization in 1946 to run the Victoria Cougars of the PCHA before retiring in 1954 and died on June 1, 1960 at the age of 76.

Because of his contributions to the game of ice hockey in western Canada as well as his accomplishments with the New York Rangers, Patrick was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947. The National Hockey League then established the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1966 to honor individuals for their outstanding contributions to hockey in the United States.

On to the 2007 award recipients now...

All four to receive the Lester Patrick Trophy this year should be familar to NHL fans, especially to those in the Big Apple. Mike "Doc" Emrick as the event emcee at the Sheraton New York presented the award to:

*former New York Rangers and United States men's Olympic team defenseman Brian Leetch

*hockey journalist, author and broadcaster Stan Fischler

*former New York Rangers publicist and historian John Halligan

*former United States women's Olympic team captain Cammi Granato

While I was not even born yet when Halligan had become a part of the Rangers organization, he helped bring them back into the forefront of many hockey fans' and the media's attention with his roles in business management and communications. Halligan became known as the man who was with former Rangers president and Hall of Famer William M. Jennings at a New York City restaurant when the idea of establishing the Lester Patrick Award was hatched. The bottom line here is that Halligan was a major contributor to the cementing the New York Rangers as a very high-profile franchise in the NHL and in professional sports. This is despite their lack of Stanley Cup championships for over a half century.

I admit I knew about Cammi Granato only after I began watching her older brother play in the NHL. Tony Granato entered the league as a rookie in 1989 with the Rangers to when he overcame a career-threatening brain injury in 1995 and returned to score 25 goals as an All-Star in the 1996-1997 season for the San Jose Sharks. As for Cammi, I must admit I didn't know much about her until she was mentioned during Rangers broadcasts when Tony was with the team and interviewed. Then I later was able to see her in a few international games on television and of course the major Olympic tournaments. What really won me over was her amazing leadership and determination to led the United States women's national team to the 1998 Gold Medal with their victory over Canada in Nagano, Japan. It was the inaugural women's hockey tournament in Olympic competition and to this very day, I have a VHS copy of the CBS broadcast. By the time Cammi had played in the 1992 Gold Medal Game in which the Canadian women got revenge, I had already bought an authentic Team USA jersey from that year with her name, number and captain C on it. Of course I'd later see her doing rinkside reporting of NHL games on NBC following the lockout. This is before she retired as a player and broadcaster to concentrate on her married life to former Ranger and current Rogers Sportsnet color analyst Ray Ferraro and raising their 10-month-old son Riley.

I have seen and learned so many things about Stan Fischler and how much he is so widely respected in hockey, it really is impressive. I actually met the man when I worked at SportsChannel before it became FSN New York and had to learn to understand his sense of humor. Today I still get to get to enjoy watching "The Hockey Maven" on local broadcasts for all three metropolitan area teams in the Rangers, Islanders and Devils. While I haven't read his books to date, I know he has written one on the history of NHL hockey in the largest market in North America, another on the New York City subway system and others about the NHL. His analysis of the local teams on a regular basis is as entertaining as the games themselves sometimes, especially when he debates with the studio hosts such as Al Trautwig or Matt Loughlin.

And last but not least, Brian Leetch. He has had the biggest impression on me of them all. Given I've closely followed the Rangers for a long time, I cannot forget when he first burst onto the international stage when he played for the 1988 United States men's Olympic team along side another Rangers great in goaltender Mike Richter. Even though the team finished 7th in the tournament in Calgary, this was just the beginning to what is expected to be a Hall of Fame career. I recall watching Leetch grow from a rookie into an NHL star very quickly and possessed the skills so few defensemen in hockey history had. He was so skilled with the puck, had the ability to score at any time (seriously, always a scoring threat) and be a quarterback on the power play. After he refined all those skills, he became a complete player and helped the Rangers end their 54-year Stanley Cup drought with a Conn Smythe Trophy playoff campaign. Even though he hardly saw much playoff time after that, Leetch was still a champion to many adoring New York fans. Everyone in the Big Apple will get to salute him very soon as a matter of fact when his #2 will be raised to the rafters on January 24th when the Atlanta Thrashers are in town. Besides his playing the high majority of his NHL career in New York City, I along with many others will also remember his role on the United States' 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship team and the 1992 Silver Medal Olympic team.

All four of these individuals have made a outstanding contributions to hockey in this country in some capacity that his completely worthy and deserving of this honor. No doubt about it, they will never be forgotten for all of their accomplishments.

Senators rewrite history book with 13-1 start

The Ottawa Senators have certainly proven their 2007 Stanley Cup Finals appearance was no fluke. Remember when seemed Toronto would always get in their way from going deep into the postseason?

They may have fallen three wins short of their first championship in modern franchise history, the Senators seem to be quite motivated to get another shot. Not only have they defied naysayers, they've caught the attention of the hockey world with an amazing start to the 2007-2008 season.

Until they can do it in the playoffs against Toronto, the consolation prize in any success Ottawa can have in this Battle of Ontario rivalry is dominating during the regular season (15-4 in their last 19 post-lockout meetings). That trend remained the same on Tuesday night with a 5-1 pasting of the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Place to improve to a league-best 13-1 on the season. Ottawa also set a new club record by extending their winning streak to eight games.

The Senators' 14-game start set a new NHL record for most wins and points in that span, eclipsing a 12-2 mark held by the 2005-2006 Detroit Red Wings and the 2006-2007 Buffalo Sabres. Both of those teams earned 25 points as each had one non-regulation loss.

Originally signed last year to be their starting goalie and lost the job to Ray Emery, it appears that Martin Gerber has earned it back for now. With Emery sidelined by injury, Gerber is poised to take full advantage of his second chance. He made 30 saves on the night with only Nikolai Antropov scoring against him in the second period. The Senators setting a new league record would not be overshadowed by Mark Bell making his Toronto debut after completing a 15-game suspension.

Will this 13-1 start mean another trip back to the Stanley Cup Finals? That remains to be seen, but the two teams that shared the old record had mixed playoff results. The Red Wings were knocked out by the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round two seasons ago and the Sabres lost to these very Senators in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Sometimes, it gets tougher to maintain this high level of success over a marathon 82-game schedule without running into any obstacle along the way. But I can truly say that barring an injury to a key player, the deterioration of a sound system implemented by head coach John Paddock or a dropoff in Gerber's or Emery's play, the Senators should be in the mix all season to come out of the East next spring.

Five goaltenders record shutout wins on November 5th

While I'm not 100% sure if it is an NHL record, but this comes as a surprise in today's NHL were new rules were implemented after the lockout to inject more scoring around the league.

Five goaltenders recorded shutout wins on November 5th. You'd swear this was the pre-lockout NHL, right? Not exactly. But either way, given that not just one or two goalies kept their opponents completely off the scoreboard, but five did, it was worth a mention.

First, we start with New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Having been a Vezina Trophy finalist in each of his first two NHL seasons, he hasn't disappointed so far in the 2007-2008 season despite the team's slow start. In playing in all 14 games the Rangers played up to that point, he was still exceptionally sharp with 30 saves in a low-scoring 2-0 home win over the Philadelphia Flyers. It was already his 4th shutout of the season. What made this win more of a feat is that the Rangers had scored only 25 goals, an NHL-low. But in order to turn their season around, they completed season-longest six-game homestand where they went 5-1. In other words, Lundqvist has had next to no room for error in getting important wins for the Rangers. He was the primary reason they won besides a sound defensive gameplan against the Flyers.

About 10 miles to the southwest of Madison Square Garden, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins made their debut at Prudential Center a very successful one. Backup goaltender Dany Sabourin made 20 saves and Crosby scored twice in a 5-0 rout of the New Jersey Devils. Even ex-Devil Petr Sykora scored a goal against his one-time team. He was a part of the Devils' 1995 and 2000 Stanley Cup championship teams. Why do I also mention Sykora? The Penguins had blown two-goal leads in each of their previous two games and lost. His goal put Pittsburgh up 3-0 with 14:12 in the second period and the Devils barely challenged the rest of the game.

Remember who was the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy award winner? Cam Ward played the kind of game reminiscent of the Carolina Hurricanes' successful Stanley Cup playoff run where he was sound between the pipes and made the big save at the best possible time. On this night, Ward stopped all 35 shots he faced in a 5-0 win over the Washington Capitals at RBC Center. It would be the third shutout of his young career. Ward should treat Cory Stillman to dinner. Why? Stillman recorded a natural hat trick in the opening 11:28 of the game to give Carolina a big boost and send them on their way to victory.

Next, we turn our attention to goaltender who resurrected his career with a tremendous second half to last season despite falling just short of a playoff berth on the final day. Cristobal Huet had surplanted Jose Theodore as the regular starting goalie and enabled the Montréal Canadiens to trade Theodore to the Colorado Avalanche for David Aebischer. On this night, Huet stopped 29 shots (16 in the first period) to help the Canadiens to a 2-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres. It was his 14th NHL shutout and the first since November 28, 2006. Montréal needed his heroics because they were outshot 9-2 in the third period and hardly tested Ryan Miller on the other end of the ice.

After losing their previous three games on home ice, Marty Turco played like he has on a number of occasions in the past to get the Dallas Stars back in the win column. Turco made 19 saves to record his 31st NHL shutout in a 5-0 blowout road win over the Anaheim Ducks. Jere Lehtinen and Mike Ribeiro both gave Turco the cushion he needed as each had a goal and two assists. The Stars have won both meetings with the defending Stanley Cup champions and this one was decided by their special teams performance with two power play goals and killing off all four Anaheim power plays.

Outside of Lundqvist, the other four goalies on this night recorded their first shutouts of the season. Is this a sign of things to come? I wouldn't count on five goalies getting shutout wins on the same day anytime soon, but it only reemphasizes the importance of skill and patience on the part of the opposition to score a goal against the best goalies the NHL has to offer.

Al Arbour wins in "one night only" return for 1500th game

For suffering New York Islanders fans who want to fondly reflect back to their team's glory years, one way that is done is remembering legendary head coach Al Arbour. A man that had a huge role in the franchise winning four straight Stanley Cup titles from 1980 to 1983 returned to the bench on November 3rd to mark his 1,500th game as the Islanders head coach.

Although not all in succession, Arbour spent 19 seasons at the helm from 1973 to 1986 and then from 1988 to 1994. He amassed 739 wins during his two tours of duty, an NHL record for a coach with the same team.

Back in July, current head coach Ted Nolan approached general manager Garth Snow and team owner Charles Wang about the idea of having Arbour coach one game this season to round out his all-time games coached to exactly 1,500 games. They gladly approved and Arbour happily agreed to the one-game contract to run the bench with Nolan. Arbour said at a press conference prior to the milestone game that he did realize it would be #1500.

"I never kept track of the number of games I've coached," Arbour said. "I didn't have any idea until they had told me about it. It will be a special night for the alumni, the organization and everyone involved. I'd like to thank Ted, Garth and the owner for making this possible for me. It's a great thrill for my family and me to be back in our hometown of Long Island."

Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 25, 1996, Arbour has plenty of peers who have a high respect and appreciation for the legendary coach. One of them happens to be another held in such a regard, that being Scotty Bowman.

"As a coach, of course, Al Arbour put his stamp on the NHL forever. What he'll probably always be remembered for is how he molded a true TEAM. He had some brilliant players that had Hall of Fame careers like Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Trottier, Bossy, Gillies," Bowman said a few days prior to the game. "But it was Al who got them to be part of the team fabric. If the all-stars do not buy in to Al's concept, the Islanders do not become a dynasty."

The Islanders were able to get Arbour his 740th victory in that 1,500th game with a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins as Miroslav Satan scored twice in the third period to have a say in the outcome. The only blemish on the night was goaltender Rick DiPietro leaving the game in the second period after getting actually hit in the face on an accidental high stick from Sidney Crosby. DiPietro's backup Wade Dubielewicz finished the game and earned the victory. Trent Hunter also scored for the Islanders, who at the time improved their season record to 7-4.

After the game, the team had a wonderful ceremony to honor Arbour. His "739" banner inside the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was replaced by a new "1500" banner. All the current players and a number of alumni took part in the postgame event.

"I'm very touched with everything," said Arbour after the night was complete. "I was very surprised at the end when they raised the new banner. All of the fans staying until the very, very end, that really touched me quite a bit. I'd like to thank the organization for asking me to do this, and especially the players that worked so hard. Ted Nolan did a great job with the team, as well as general manager Garth Snow and owner Charles Wang. This is really my second home."

The script couldn't have been written any better for Arbour on this night. One thing is for sure, regardless of what the Islanders do in the years to come, he will always have a very important place in the history of the franchise.

Senators sign Jason Spezza to new 7-year contract

Nearly a month after taking care of Dany Heatley with a six-year, $45 million contract extension, the Ottawa Senators locked up another of their top superstar forwards in getting Jason Spezza signed to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension on November 2nd.

It was quite important for the Senators to get both Heatley and Spezza under long-term deals in order to build the team around them and captain Daniel Alfredsson. Mission accomplished.

"Jason Spezza is a great example of what the future holds for the Ottawa Senators and our fans," Senators owner Eugene Melnyk told the media. "Without question, Jason belongs here in Ottawa and he continues to be an integral part of our organization's long-term plans. Over time, we have built an impressive level of on-ice talent, and Bryan Murray and our entire management team have clearly continued that effort with today's re-signing."

There is no doubt that the 24-year-old Spezza should be paid what he's been worth. As a integral part of Ottawa's recent success, the 2001 second overall draft pick has put up impressive numbers so far in his career. It may not be earth-shattering, but 90 points during the 2005-2006 season is not too shabby, I must say. I still remember like it was yesterday that Spezza kept going back and forth between Ottawa and their primary minor league affiliate in the Binghamton Senators before finally settling into the NHL for good.

With Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson on the Ottawa roster for the considerable future, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Will highly productive players such as these three help get the Senators back to the Stanley Cup Finals next spring? Only time will tell, but opponents will really have their hands full trying to stop them.

Rick Tocchet to be reinstated on February 7th

For anyone that followed last year's media coverage of a sports gambling ring that rocked the hockey world, closure was one step closer to becoming reality when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on November 1st that Phoenix Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet would be reinstated on February 7, 2008.

Tocchet plead guilty earlier this year to third degree charges of his role in "Operation Slapshot", an illegal gambling ring in southern New Jersey where he conspired and promoted betting on sports events. New Jersey Attorney General Robert J. Cleary completed a 21-month investigation that found former state trooper James Harney guilty of running the operation while Tocchet helped friends (including current and former NHL players) place bets. One of the concerned parties that were questioned was Wayne Gretzky's wife Janet and later to be found not involved.

Fortunately for Tocchet, he was spared prison time for not having any of these activities involve bets on NHL games. Had he done so, it could very well have ended any association with the league with perhaps a Pete Rose ban and face a five-year jail sentence. After the investigation probe went public, Tocchet was granted a leave of absence by the Coyotes while all legal matters are settled.

"There is no evidence that anyone, including Mr. Tocchet, did anything that in any way or at any time compromised the integrity of NHL hockey or any NHL hockey game," Bettman said in a league press release.

So instead of jail time, Tocchet was given two years probation and has been allowed to serve it in Arizona, where he maintains his primary residence. Under the reinstatement agreement, Bettman gave a stern warning to Tocchet that he cannot gamble in any way, engage in any conduct that threatens the integrity of the NHL or any of its teams and enter the NHL's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program to see if Tocchet has a gambling addiction.

In a nutshell, Tocchet did engage in illegal activity under New Jersey state law, but didn't bet on NHL games while employed by one of the 30 teams and will be given a second chance with reinstatement to return to his coaching post in Phoenix IF he keeps his nose clean. How will this effect the Coyotes when he does come back? No one knows, but for the team's sake, they cannot afford to let this become a distraction again as it did during the 2005-2006 season.

NHLPA ratifies new constitution

After taking a major public relations hit during the 2004 lockout that saw the eventual ouster of former Executive Director Bob Goodenow and the naming of Paul Kelly as the eventual replacement instead of Ted Saskin, members of the National Hockey League Players' Association ratified a new constitution on October 30th.

Over the summer, Executive Board meetings took place before Kelly was appointed to be the new man to be in charge of the NHLPA. Craig Adams, Eric Lindros, Andrew Peters and Matt Stajan were given the responsibility to be a key part of the constitution review process.

The new constitution was approved by secret ballot, so don't expect any recognizable names to be on public record as to how specific players voted on it. Given the disaster of the lockout which ultimately the 2004-2005 season was wiped out, the NHLPA needed some rebuilding of not just their image, but in getting their house back in order. Among the significant changes, they include:

* no more Executive Committee where there was a President and Vice President position... now club player representatives from each of the 30 NHL teams will have equal voting power on the Executive Board while the Executive Director and General Counsel will now be two separate non-voting positions instead of being held by the same person

*the Executive Board can appoint an "Ombudsman" where his role would be to recommend union members that can serve as a Divisional Player Representative, primarily six former players to be liaisons for current players in each of the six NHL divisions

* the introduction of an Advisory Board where NHLPA members with expertise in law, corporate affairs, finance, marketing, labor relations and player representation can be utilized in various matters that affect the players union

"The players have put together an exceptional constitution with the process that brought about the changes being just as significant as what their efforts produced," Kelly stated in the NHLPA's press release. "From the very beginning of the review, players consulted with each other, conducted surveys and group discussion, and then affirmed the new constitution by secret ballot. It's highly appropriate that the players’ constitution was constructed by the players themselves."

One way or the other, the players need to be united again and in a way that will benefit not just the NHLPA, but the league as well. When it comes to important business meetings between the two sides on any hockey matters that effect everyone, there is a pressing need to be sure all the players are on the same page. What really was disturbing during the lockout were revolts and defections from union management by the players when the lockout had its hardest grip.

With a new Executive Director in place with Paul Kelly at the helm and now a new constitution, it can only be a good sign that the NHLPA is on its way back to being a healthy players union.

Peter Bondra retires after 16-year NHL career

One of the most potent scoring forwards in the modern era retired as an NHL player on October 29th after a 16-year career.

Peter Bondra played 13+ seasons for the Washington Capitals before they sent him to the Ottawa Senators on February 18, 2004 where he was given a better chance to win a Stanley Cup championship. It would not happen as the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs eliminated the Senators in a hard-fought seven-game Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. It would end up as just a pit stop for him in the twilight of his career.

He would never get another sniff at the playoffs again as he finished up with the Atlanta Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks following the lockout. Bondra scored 533 goals (30 were in the playoffs) in 1,161 games (includes 80 in the postseason) of his career. Just 26 of all his goals were not in a Washington uniform. He did go scoreless in seven 2004 playoff games for Ottawa.

Many hockey fans will picture Bondra as a member of the Capitals before any of the other three teams he played for. Why? That is where most of his memories lie. For example...

* He made five All-Star appearances (1993, 1996-1999).

* His career-best six-point night came against the New York Islanders on February 3, 1996 where he scored four goals in a 6-5 overtime win.

* His stellar was during the 1997-1998 season where he and Teemu Selanne each scored an NHL-leading 52 goals.

* Despite the series loss, Bondra scored the game-winning overtime goal in Game 3 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Buffalo Sabres.

* He broke Mike Gartner's Capitals record for most hat tricks with his 14th on October 12, 1999.

* His fifth 4-goal game in the NHL took place in a 5-1 win at Ottawa on December 27, 2000.

* After signing a contract extension with Washington, he recorded his 16th NHL hat trick on February 1, 2001 against Toronto.

* He became the Capitals' all-time leading goal scorer on November 30, 2001 during a 6-2 rout of the Carolina Hurricanes. That was followed up with his next goal was being #400 on December 4, 2001 against the New York Rangers.

* He became the Capitals' all-time leading points scorer in his 907th NHL game by recording point #790 on April 5, 2004 against the Pittsburgh Penguins (broke Gartner's club record).

That's not even mentioning his 1998 Stanley Cup Finals appearance where the Capitals got swept in four straight games to the Detroit Red Wings. Despite that, that is a lot of milestone moments. However, his 1000th NHL game was played in an Atlanta Thrashers uniform on November 11, 2005 and his 500th NHL goal wound up taking place 50 games later during his final season while with the Chicago Blackhawks.

When the 39-year-old Bondra announced his retirement as a player, he said was not leaving the game entirely. In fact, he decided to take over running Slovakia's national team as their new general manager. Will he eventually return to the NHL in some capacity such as a coach or in hockey operations? Who knows, but one thing I'll remember while he wore that Capitals uniform was he burned the New York Rangers time and time again. It didn't matter if it was John Vanbiesbrouck, Mike Richter, Bob Froese or Guy Hebert between the pipes. Bondra tormented the Rangers year after year. Three of his 19 career hat tricks were against New York.

Flames sign Miikka Kiprusoff to 6-year contract extension

Since I had concentrated on writing the Prudential Center story and had some other personal matters to take care of, now I have to play catch up on some hockey stories from the last two weeks. So bear with me if I'm a little behind in the timing of this one and a few more here.

Remember when Miikka Kiprusoff was a backup goaltender in San Jose earlier in his career and most hockey observers didn't know much about him? Who knows how he would've fared and how the team's fortunes would've gone had he remained a Shark, but his status around the National Hockey League took off when he arrived in Calgary on November 16, 2003. At the time, he was only worth a 2005 second round draft pick in return. Go figure.

As the Sharks' 116th overall draft pick in 1995, Kiprusoff was 15-22-3 in his NHL career prior to the trade (including a 1-1 postseason record). That changed in a big way after he became the Flames' full-time starter and posted 126-73-4 record (including 20-19 in the playoffs). He helped get Calgary all the way to the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals and was one win away from a championship. Kiprusoff captured the 2006 Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender, too.

Even though the Flames haven't gotten another chance yet to win the Stanley Cup title, the team decided to make sure he didn't make it to free agency next summer. The 31-year-old Kiprusoff signed a six-year, $35 million contract extension on October 29th to remain with the organization through the 2013-2014 season.

Calgary's priorities is to get their core players locked up and provide a sign the team is committed to winning. Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr are those the Flames took care of to ensure that. Kiprusoff has definitely earned his raise, but will have to work his magic between the pipes again this season if Calgary wants to go deep into the postseason again. His role could shape the Western Conference standings this season. The kind of job security he was just given is a strong indicator of the Flames' commitment he's the impact player they cannot afford to lose.

Future hope for Devils and Newark pinned on Prudential Center's success

There were eight attempts before this one to build a sports and entertainment venue in New Jersey's largest city spanning the last 80 years. One even had it where it would look like a replica of the original Madison Square Garden. They all failed to materialize.

The ninth life of this dream outlasted its predecessors when a deal between Newark officials and the New Jersey Devils was signed on the dotted line on February 2, 2005. The team made its commitment to vacate the Meadowlands Sports Complex for downtown Newark.

Original plans during this decade had the New Jersey Nets seeking the move to Newark when YankeeNets operated that franchise, but roadblocks in ultimately sealing any agreement to build a new arena there killed it. After squabbling among the YankeeNets ownership group investors led to the eventual sale of the Nets in August 2004, new owner Bruce Ratner announced his intentions to relocate that team to the New York City borough of Brooklyn. So far, an arena project has been put together. It has been endorsed by state and city officials as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to built it in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights section of the city. Plus, the arena naming rights has already been sold. However, despite all of that, it is not completely 100% certain that the New Jersey Nets will ultimately end up moving there. There are still a few obstacles remaining such as court hearings on eminent domain issues concerning the surrounding areas of the Atlantic Yards, a mixed-use commercial and residential development area where the arena would be built. All of these obstacles have to be cleared before an official groundbreaking can take place and seal the Nets' future.

The Nets have targeted the start of the 2009-2010 season to be playing at a new arena in Brooklyn as what has been named the Barclays Center. With not every I dotted or T crossed in their relocation plans, the team signed a lease extension at the Meadowlands through 2013 in the event there are further delays in the Brooklyn arena project or that it is cancelled. The Devils extended an invitation to the Nets to join them in Newark, but that has been politely declined at least for now until their Brooklyn option is ultimately decided and after weighing their remaining options.

As an NHL franchise, the Devils were born as the Kansas City Scouts in 1974. Two years later, it then operated as the Colorado Rockies (not to be confused with the present-day Major League Baseball team) for the next six seasons at the now-demolished McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. It wouldn't be until the late Dr. John McMullen announced on May 27, 1982 he bought the team and relocated it to northern New Jersey to where the Devils reside today.

For the next 25 years, the Devils and Nets would play in under the same roof which was originally Brendan Byrne Arena, named after the one-time New Jersey governor. I even remember seeing the signage being his name. It had been the most recently-built major league sports and entertainment venue in the entire New York City metropolitan area since it opened on July 2, 1981. But since the stadium-building boom began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Devils' former home in the Garden State became outdated and antiquated where it lacked much of the modern amenities of the newer arenas around North America. Therefore, the Devils also sought to have a new arena built. For the time being, to bring in additional revenue to the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority (NJSEA) that operated the arena at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, a naming rights deal was completed on January 4, 1996 for a name change to the Continental Airlines Arena. I was most familiar with that arena name during most of my visits to East Rutherford, New Jersey. Four days after the Devils played their first game in Newark, their old home was re-named again, this time as the Izod Center.

After the Nets were sold to Ratner, a high profile real estate developer, the Devils were basically on their own to fulfill their quest to build a new arena in Newark and in order to ultimately stay in the state of New Jersey. Right around the very time that the team won their first of three Stanley Cup championships, rumors ran rampant that the franchise would relocate for the third time in possibly going to Nashville. This was before the National Hockey League later awarded the Tennessee capital an expansion team in the Nashville Predators. Before the Devils eventually focused on Newark as their destination of choice, Dr. McMullen's idea to build the new arena in Hoboken was shot down as it never went farther than design concepts and placement.

Plans for the Newark arena languished for almost a decade as negotiations between city and state officials, the sports teams (basically the Nets and Devils) and their investors. After the YankeeNets plans died, it appeared Newark's dream for a major league venue vanished. Long-time Devils season ticker holder, Wall Street executive and one-time minority owner of Puck Holdings (the hockey arm of the now-defunct YankeeNets) Jeff Vanderbeek bought the franchise in March 2004 and had an instrumental role in not only resurrecting hope, but ultimately getting the arena built in Newark.

It took much patience following the failure of securing naming rights revenue from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with Newark Liberty International Airport to help fund the arena when YankeeNets tried to finalize an agreement. Vanderbeek ended up being the one to seal the deal as former Newark mayor Sharpe James signed it and even wore a Devils jersey at the 2005 news conference to make the announcement. The agreement included an arena occupation lease of 30 years. In October 2006, the team met a deadline to commit at least $100 million to the project.

In the months that followed, the Devils unveiled the arena design on April 7, 2005 complete with a three-dimensional model where you can see the interior and exterior of the building would look like. Morris Adjmi along with one of the world's most reputable stadium architects in HOK Sport were responsible for the final design. One element that sticks out immediately by first glance are the atriums that look like glass-wrapped cylinders attached to the building. They appear reminiscent of the MTS Centre in Winnipeg. Vanderbeek ended up touring the newest venues in the United States and Canada and making an unorthodox checklist of what he did not want in his arena. But one feature that stood out in my mind that he did include was a practice facility attached to it. The Columbus Blue Jackets were the first to do this when Nationwide Arena was built and Vanderbeek wanted to make their training sessions and game night work all centralized in the same location. After the groundbreaking ceremony took place on October 3, 2005, the Devils owner dedicated an incredible amount of his time to build a world-class venue.

While the Devils were playing their final season at the Meadowlands, the naming of the new arena in Newark was revealed. Vanderbeek announced on January 8, 2007 that his team's new home would be called Prudential Center. Not to be confused with a commercial complex by the same name in downtown Boston, Prudential Financial, Inc. purchased the naming rights to the arena for $105.3 million for the next 20 years. The arena immediately was coined a nickname. That would be "The Rock", much in reference to Prudential's company logo that bears the Rock of Gibraltar.

Another great feature to the building are two club lounges, one being the Belvedere Fire Lounge which uses a fire theme to resemble Satan's home (okay not quite, just for the idea that the interior is decorated and luminated in red) while the Bud Light Ice Lounge features an ice-covered bar where fans can get their beer set on top of it to keep it cold. The big advantage of what these two lounges have compared to the Devils' former home and other very recently-built arenas is that they overlook a great view of the ice surface below so fans don't miss the action. The Goal Bar at Suite Level 1 also provides club seat and season ticket holders a terrace-style restaurant with views of the ice surface as well. Prudential Center has a seating capacity for 17,625 fans at Devils games and there are 76 luxury suites, the most of any North American major league arena. Want to use one? It could cost you as much as $285,000 to rent one for a season, so either you better be a rich man or have plenty of business friends to split up the cost. With the Seton Hall Pirates joining the Devils as one of the teams that will play on a regular basis at the arena, about 18,500 college basketball fans can watch the action. Prudential Center will also be home to a brand-new soccer team, the New Jersey Ironmen of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) and any concert events held there will each provide 17,500 seats.

What will wow Devils fans at Prudential Center for every game will be a beautiful most-updated state-of-the-art eight-sided scoreboard hung over center ice with high-definition video screens. There are also as four LED ribbon boards encompassing the arena interior, all which squash what either of the other two metropolitan area venues in Madison Square Garden or Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum provide. Vanderbeek even made sure there were plenty of flat-screen HDTVs (about 750 in all) around the arena so that in case you weren't at your seat, you still won't miss the action. But what stands apart from any arena around the United States and Canada, there is a 4,800 square foot LED screen attached to the east side of Prudential Center that can be seen as far away as the New Jersey Turnpike.

Despite all the bells and whistles that the first new sports arena or stadium in the New York City metropolitan area in 26 years provides, there has always been skepticism that the Prudential Center would be a worthwhile and successful venture. Even current Newark mayor Cory Booker was. After a meeting with Vanderbeek during the early stages of the project, Booker was sold and jumped on board with a vision that the new arena will help revitalize Newark. The city has been for far too long labeled as one of the most crime-ridden urban areas in the country, this despite nearby New York City having its crime dramatically decline in recent years under Rudolph Giuliani's and Michael Bloomberg's mayoral administration. Booker and Newark city officials pin their hopes that the presence of Prudential Center, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Riverfront Stadium (home of the Newark Bears minor league baseball team) to eventually create an entertainment district in the downtown area. About $2 billion has been invested to help make Newark a safer and more viable option for New Jerseyans to spend their money and in turn help the local economy.

Vanderbeek has made a commitment to help draw those fans from suburban areas of New Jersey that feel apprehensive in venturing into downtown Newark by encouraging them to take mass transit to and from Newark Penn Station situated just two blocks away from the arena. Even though the arena is now open, ongoing construction projects will continue to make it even easier to attend any event at Prudential Center. This includes Triangle Park that will greet fans as they arrive from the train to the arena after crossing a pedestrian bridge over McCarter Highway (Route 21). And if you still insist on driving, you can park in one of over 4,000 parking spaces in lots adjacent to or near the arena. Similar to how some Rangers fans get to see their team at Madison Square Garden by taking a train into New York City's Pennsylvania Station, Devils management wants to see fans attending their games be able to have that same convenient option.

The build up to the big grand opening made it especially exciting for Newark residents, New Jerseyans and of course, Devils fans. Just two days before the first Devils home game, state and city dignitaries as well as Devils officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 25, 2007 inside the Mulberry Street atrium. Among the speakers were Vanderbeek, Booker and New Jersey governor Jon Corzine to help usher in what they hope is a new era for Newark and also for the Devils. What major event marked the occasion, you ask? The first of ten shows by none other than one of the most popular rock bands of the last 25 years in Bon Jovi. The one quote captured and shown on local television stations will be remember for a long time. New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi greeted the concertgoers by saying "I'm the Jersey Devil and welcome to my new house."

Only fitting, right? The most recent Bon Jovi concert I attended was in 2003 when he performed at the Meadowlands. Still very memorable.

Then it was the night that all Devils fans were waiting for. It was October 27, 2007. Many likely set their VCRs or DVRs to FSN New York to tape the special one-hour edition of the Devils pregame show that featured an overview of The Rock. With a capacity crowd of 17,625 on hand, Vanderbeek, Booker and Devils greats Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko gathered at center ice for the ceremonial faceoff to mark a moment some may never expected to happen. A new arena for the three-time Stanley Cup champions in a centralized area of the state, not in the middle of a marshland not as easily accessible without being tangled in traffic on congested northern New Jersey highways.

Even though the New Jersey Devils lost their inaugural game at Prudential Center by a score of 4-1 to the Ottawa Senators, Vanderbeek's vision to see a successful NHL franchise play in one of the best new arenas in the country in a revitalized Newark is now not just a dream, but very truly can become an actual reality. Jeff Vanderbeek can be seen as one of those owners that not only cares about the team he owns, but the community as well. When you walk inside Prudential Center, look at the large mural inside the main concourse featuring key figures in New Jersey sports history such as Martin Brodeur, a future Hall of Fame goaltender. See the smaller mural showing the most notable players and coaches in Devils history. See the high school hockey jerseys hanging inside the main lobby of the arena. Vanderbeek wants to give fans a sense of New Jersey pride when you walk through its doors. Mission accomplished. Now it is only a matter of whether his team delivers another Stanley Cup title to make his dream complete.