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Devils welcome fans to new home

by Dan Rosen /
Zach Parise skates onto the ice at the Prudential Center prior to Saturday's game against the Ottawa Senators.
NEWARK, N.J. – Twenty-five years ago Doug Altschuler went with his father to the old Brendan Byrne Arena to see the Devils christen their new digs and welcome the National Hockey League to New Jersey.

So, you can only imagine how special it was for Altschuler, now a physician and father of three living in Pottsville, Pa., to bring his two boys to the brand new Prudential Center in Newark on Saturday night.

“I’ve been going to games periodically,” said Altschuler, proudly wearing his blue Colorado Rockies jersey, signifying just how far back he goes with the Devils organization. “I figured I’d come tonight and take the boys, who are now playing hockey themselves. We’re very excited. We got here early to scope it out.”

The Prudential Center swung open its doors to Devils fans for the first time Saturday night, and it didn’t disappoint. The streets around the building, which is aptly nicknamed, “The Rock,” were flooded with fans hours before the puck dropped.

Even the persistent rain in the Northeast didn’t keep them away, although it did squelch much of the planned outdoor fan fest.

“The critiquing I’m getting from the fans on the concourse is overwhelmingly positive,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said between the first and second periods. “This is a great place to come to an event.”

A group of teenagers from Wallington, N.J., located just a few miles away from Newark, arrived at 8:30 in the morning. The Devils held back 200 tickets and put them on sale at 5 p.m. at the arena box office for $10 – and these guys staked their spot at the front of the line off Edison Street.

They were there when the Devils arrived for their morning skate and had the chance to interact with Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias, Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Kevin Weekes and Chico Resch, a former Devils goalie who is now their television analyst.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Konrad Pluwa, who was with his buddies Mike Piatek, Tom Hajduk, Marcin Chojnowski and David Mludzik. “You’ll never get another night like this.”

The boys, though, were giving Mludzik good ribbing because he was a late arriver. He still took his spot at the front of the line despite not getting there until well after 2 p.m.

“It’s my mom’s fault,” Mludzik explained. “I woke up at 5 just to get here, but she said I had to do chores to deserve this.”

Just behind the boys from Wallington were Mike Zink, 20, and the Sammon brothers – Joe, Matt, Nick, Andy, and Jerry, all from Glen Ridge, N.J., another short trip from the Prudential Center.

They had their Devils’ tailgate chairs and didn’t hesitate to start yelling at an enemy fan wearing a Mark Messier Rangers’ jersey. They also didn’t let a passer-by in a Scott Gomez Devils’ jersey walk away without hearing a few choice words.

Steve Lepore, an 18-year-old from nearby North Arlington, N.J., arrived at the line in the early afternoon and was thrilled to be part of the celebration.

“I didn’t go to any of the Stanley Cup championship games, so this is the biggest thing I’ve been to,” Lepore said. “It’s just one of those nights that will stand out in Devils history, no matter what the score is.”

Fans were streaming in droves up the few blocks from Newark Penn Station, and since the Rangers were also home Saturday night there were some hot arguments going on during the ride on the New Jersey Transit trains.

The festivities inside provided a memory for the ages as the Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy showed up and were put on display for the fans. Cup keeper Mike Bolt said he even surprised the Devils when he arrived with the chalice.

The trophies were roped off, but hoards of fans were snapping pictures. Right beside the trophies is a tribute to the Devils history – there were jerseys going all the way back to the Eastern Hockey League’s Jersey Devils of 1964-73. The Devils also paid tribute to their past. A game-worn Guy Charron Kansas City Scouts jersey was next in line, followed by a Brent Ashton home Colorado Rockies jersey and a Steve Tambellini Rockies road jersey. Kirk Muller’s game-worn Devils home jersey with the original colors of white, green and red was next, followed by a Doug Sulliman green-and-red road jersey.

Finally, last in line is a modern-day Martin Brodeur red jersey.

Devils fans had been waiting for this night to come for a long time.

Fans were also given a chance to sign their name and seat number on a 6-1/2-foot puck that will go up on a wall at the Prudential Center forever.

One of the nicest touches to the new arena is the Devils’ tribute to New Jersey’s growing high school hockey community – jerseys from each of the 127 schools that sponsor the sport are hanging on the concourse level.

“The excitement is there,” Devils forward Zach Parise said. “Driving to the rink you could see fans with jerseys on hanging around, and that’s something you didn’t see at the old rink. It’s really nice.”

For Parise and the players, though, it was business as usual prior to the game.

Players were working on their sticks, stretching out, and getting themselves ready for their game against the Ottawa Senators, who entered the night leading the Eastern Conference with 16 points.

“Part of being an athlete is you have to put all the fanfare aside and realize at the end of the day we’re here to win a hockey game,” Parise said. “It’s great opening a new building, but it’s not as great if we don’t win. This is an important game for us, not only for a home opener but for where we’re at in the standings.”

Minutes before the action on the new ice began, the Devils rolled out the red carpet for their team brass, including owner Jeff Vanderbeek, as well as Newark mayor Cory Booker, Bettman, and retired stars Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko, both of whom have had their numbers retired by the Devils.

It had the feeling of a playoff game, but the seats weren’t filled yet because fans were still checking out the accoutrements on the concourse level.

“It was a long time coming, it required a great deal of vision and commitment and they exceeded everybody’s expectations,” Bettman said. “It’s state of the art, and first class.”

A video detailed pictures of the construction of the arena from the beginning and had audio of Vanderbeek and various folks from the Newark area commenting on the importance of the building for the community.

Finally, AC-DC’s “Hells Bells” came over the speakers, smoke filled the Devils’ entry way to the ice, and the three-time Stanley Cup champions were introduced one-by one. The loudest ovation was for Brodeur, the last man onto the ice.

Elias and Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson took a ceremonial faceoff, and after longtime Devils anthem singer Arlette sang “Oh Canada,” the Devils welcomed actress and singer Emmy Rossum to sing the “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Moments later, Madden took the first draw with Jason Spezza and the bells and whistles took a backseat to what everyone came for – a hockey game.

“You always have a vision in your head, and it has met those expectations and then some,” said injured Devils forward Jamie Langenbrunner. “With the way the season started, I think we needed a little bit of a kick-start – and this is it.”


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