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Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils makes a save against the Florida Panthers at the Prudential Center on January 20, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Jim McIsaac/2010 Getty Images)
Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils makes a save against the Florida Panthers at the Prudential Center on January 20, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Jim McIsaac/2010 Getty Images)

Feature

The House that Lou built Add to ...

Newark has been called a lot of things over the years, and the names have seldom been kind.

In 1996, it was branded the "most dangerous city" in the United States by Time Magazine - a result of a high crime and murder rate - and despite recent progress, more than a decade later, it still routinely scores in the top 25 in that category.

The reasons are obvious, too, as over the years, New Jersey's largest city has been home to all sorts of seedy fare - from corrupt politicians, to violent gangs and some of the darkest corners of the region's drug trade.

Beginning in the fall of 2007, however, Newark gained an altogether different tenant when the New Jersey Devils came to town.

It's a curious pairing and unique in the NHL, but after 21/2 seasons together, club officials say it's been a good match between a team that was desperate for a home and a troubled city banking on hockey to help it change.

"There was a thought process of what this building could do for Newark and hopefully what Newark could do for the building, with reference to mass transportation and all of the areas that it offers [access to]" Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said.

"We're trying to rejuvenate it."

Located minutes from the city's Penn Station - and by extension New York City - the Devils' Prudential Center has become known as The House that Lou built - a reference to the team's sage, 67-year-old GM, a man who is as much the face of the franchise as any player to have donned its jersey.

It's a fitting moniker, too, given Lamoriello's diligent stumping for the new rink played a key role in the Devils staying in New Jersey - something that was by no means guaranteed even as the franchise piled up three Stanley Cups beginning in the mid-1990s.

The newest facility in the NHL, until the Pittsburgh Penguins' Consol Energy Center opens next fall, the Prudential Center may be one of the nicest buildings in the league, but what it generally makes headlines for is the fact it's a state-of-the-art $375-million (U.S.) rink plunked in the middle of a city rated the fourth poorest in the country.

It didn't take long for that contrast to be noticed around the NHL, either.

Days after the building opened two seasons ago, the city's murky reputation and its future as a hockey market collided, as ESPN talking head Barry Melrose offered his thoughts on the Devils' new home.

"Don't go outside if you have a wallet or anything else, because the area around the arena is just horrible," Melrose quipped, later apologizing to outraged city officials.

Even now, Lamoriello remains sensitive to criticism of his team's new home, wincing when asked about the extensive police presence around the arena at Devils games - something noted by many who visit the city.

Fans, however, say they appreciate the beefed-up security.

"Melrose got in trouble for saying it was terrible despite not having been there, but he wasn't that far off," said Peter Flanigan, a Jersey City native who attends a few games a year at the rink.

"I know residents have complained that they feel less protected since the police are all protecting the hockey fans but for me, going to a game, I'm grateful."

Many also rave about the new facility and say that their opinion of Newark is slowly beginning to change as they visit more often.

"Having lived in Jersey all my life, I have never had any reason to go to Newark until the Prudential Center went up - and I'm probably not the only one who had that feeling," season ticket holder John Fischer said. "That … has improved my opinion of the city."

Despite the concerns with the Devils' new home, everyone from club management on down agrees that a move was necessary - even if meant leaving New Jersey. When cities such as Nashville came calling after the team's first championship in 1995, then-owner John McMullen was listening.

"He eventually sold the team because a new facility was necessary for the franchise to survive," Lamoriello said. "There's no question the Devils would not have been able to survive if we did not get a new facility.

"There's no question about that."

New Jersey, after all, was a cash-strapped tenant in its former home - now known as the Izod Center - and often played second fiddle to the NBA's Nets, who are themselves now on the lookout for new digs. (The Devils are ineligible for the NHL's revenue-sharing plan because of their proximity to New York, something that prevents what is in some ways a small market team - based in a city of 280,000 - from cashing cheques that teams in bigger burghs such as Atlanta and Phoenix receive every year.)

The Prudential Center, meanwhile, is all Devils, all the time - with massive logos and murals gracing the area around it and red and black dominating the décor. More important, revenues are up significantly - although just how much so, Lamoriello isn't saying.

"There's no question the arrow is going in the right direction," he said.

Yet whereas most teams opening the doors on a new building experience a steady stream of sellouts in the early years, New Jersey ranks only 20th in the NHL in attendance with an average of 15,223 fans a game, up roughly 1,000 fans a game from the Devils' final few seasons in nearby East Rutherford.

The revitalization of Newark's downtown, meanwhile, remains a work in progress - although proponents of the development insist progress has been there.

Lamoriello doesn't deny that the region has its challenges but believes the Devils will help Newark just as the city has already helped a franchise that had never really had a home.

"I don't think you can look any further than go to Washington," Lamoriello said of the Capitals' Verizon Center, which helped gentrify a seedy section of that city's downtown.

"If you have any experience of where the building was before and what that rink has done for Washington, it's almost unrecognizable from where it was several years ago. I think that's the great example.

"There are things you're able to do, you know, funds you're able to get, because of those reasons."

Newark in a nutshell

Nickname The Brick City

Population 280,000

Demographics 54 per cent black, 24 per cent white, 22 per cent other

Key fact New Jersey's largest city

Politics With a mayoral election looming, one of the key issues is violent crime and a murder rate that remains roughly four times the U.S. average.

Famous Newarkians Jason Alexander, Whitney Houston, Queen Latifah, Jerry Lewis, Ray Liotta, Shaquille O'Neal, Joe Pesci.

In the news Conan O'Brien sparred publicly with Newark Mayor Cory Booker last fall after making this joke on The Tonight Show: "The Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, wants to set up a citywide program to improve residents' health. The health-care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark."

 

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