There are signs of revitalization around the Prudential Centre in downtown Newark, three years after the New Jersey Devils moved in.
The signs are small - a few construction sites in the block around the arena, a few new chain restaurants and a couple of bars - but they are a welcome sight in a city that long ago grew tired of the jokes about its image as a crime-ridden slum. There is still a strong police presence around the arena on game nights but the environment feels safer than in the building's first season.
Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek says 53 per cent of spectators use public transportation, thanks to a train station 400 metres from the Pru's front doors. Yet, the Devils are struggling to match the relatively modest attendance numbers at their former home in the Meadowlands, 15 kilometres to the northeast.
"Once they get here, and understand they can park, or come by train, they come back," Vanderbeek says of the fans. "Our challenge is just to get them here."
An hour before the Devils played the Calgary Flames recently, there weren't any ticket scalpers greeting a visitor across the street from the arena, just a panhandler with a tale of woe about a nearby apartment with no heat. There was no buzz outside, as you'd feel in Montreal or New York, and when the puck dropped to start the game just a little more than half the 17,625 seats were occupied.
The Devils rank 23rd among the NHL's 30 teams in attendance with an announced average crowd of 14,680, down almost 900 from last season's average of 15,535, which was 20th in the league. To sell tickets, there are customized pitches by e-mail to selected groups, and by the Devils' owner himself in personal appearances. They've even introduced specialty licence plates.
"We're working very hard," Vanderbeek says. "There's a lot of upside. We are actually the only team in New Jersey to wear an NJ on its chest. We pride ourselves on being a Jersey team. It resonates with the [fans] They really buy into the fact this strip of land between Philadelphia and New York is theirs."
The stunning on-ice struggles of the Devils this season are not helping Vanderbeek's efforts. The Devils sit 29th overall in the NHL with an 8-19-2 record, 17 points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Only the New York Islanders have an inferior record. A 14th consecutive postseason appearance for a perennial contender under president and general manager Lou Lamoriello is unlikely.
Star free agent Ilya Kovalchuk, who signed a 15-year, $100-million (all currency U.S.) contract last summer, is a flop. After 26 games, Kovalchuk, 27, has 11 points and is a minus-17 rating. Injuries to goaltender Martin Brodeur, and forwards Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise hurt the team, as Kovalchuk, defencemen Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov tried to adjust to new teammates.
Early on, "our best players were not our best players," Lamoriello said, implying some figured the arrival of Kovalchuk meant they could take it easy. "This is not a game, where the parity is, that you can take that night off."
Some of Vanderbeek's fellow owners believe he is looking to sell the franchise, according to two NHL sources. Both sources said Vanderbeek made a strong pitch last summer to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets of the NBA. Re-signing Kovalchuk, a Russian, was core to the pitch.
"You never know," Vanderbeek says coyly. "[Prokhorov]does like the building. We have a very good relationship. I talk to him about a lot of things."
However, Vanderbeek insisted he is in for the long haul and has no plans to sell. A spokeswoman for Prokhorov said he "currently has no plans to purchase any other sports teams."
Vanderbeek gets most of the revenue from the arena, which is expected to turn a profit for the first time in the 2010-11 season. An investment banker said the revenue is relatively modest because of the draws of the other teams using it - the Nets (who will be moving to Brooklyn in 2012), the Liberty of the WNBA and Seton Hall University's basketball team. The banker added that any arena profit is sideswiped by the Devils' losses.
Vanderbeek is disputing revenue share with the city, which paid for 60 per cent of the arena. He has withheld $10-million in rent payments because, Vanderbeek claims, Newark owes him $17-million because of construction delays and parking charges. A failed parking agreement is at the centre of the three-year battle. The city won the latest round when the Newark Superior Court ruled a letter from a former city official guaranteeing Vanderbeek $2.7-million a year in parking charges was not a valid contract.