Thursday, November 8, 2007

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.

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