The atmosphere at Prudential Center, re-visited

A few things to note before delving into this. As I said yesterday, I planned on taking a lot of pictures and a lot of video at Prudential Center on Friday night. But, of course, between warm-ups and puck drop, my phone, which I was relying on as my camera, decided to break. Like, really break. Don't believe me, Devils fans? Here's a picture.

The pictures I did take at the game aren't retrievable, but they were obviously all taken prior to the game anyway, so it doesn't really make a difference. What follows below, however, is a completely honest account of what I saw. I sincerely hope that, even without the photographic evidence that I promised, Devils fans and Flyers fans alike will believe my account.

And with that said, I was actually rather impressed with the atmosphere at Prudential Center on Friday night. It was probably about 75 percent Devils fans, 25 percent Flyers fans. Those of us in orange and black were a clear but vocal minority, which I assume you could hear on the television broadcast. The "Booooooosh" chants were unrelenting, of course, and we were very loud throughout the entirety of the game.

But like I said, the diehard Devils fans in attendance did impress me quite a bit. Does that mean everybody rooting on the home team impressed me? Hell no. But read on, please.

THE BUILDING

I met up with John Fischer from In Lou We Trust before the game and he introduced me to a friend who's name unfortunately escapes me. The duo asked where my seats were, and when I responded with section 228, they said "uh oh, up there with the crazies," or something along those lines.

When at these seats that are literally in the roof of the Prudential Center, you look across at those on the opposite side of the ice equivalent to yours, through a maze of Seton Hall Big East championship banners and metal girders, and you question how they can possibly be good seats. Somehow they are, though, one of the many amazing features of this building. They're much further away from the ice than an upper level seat at the Wachovia Center, but the sight lines are still incredible, even when you're six rows from the ceiling.

It truly is a fantastic venue. It's easy getting there, it's absolutely beautiful inside and out, there's plenty of standing room along the spacious upper concourse, and the food is superb.

But there are also features of the building which severely hurt the atmosphere. The three center ice sections in the lower bowl are completely segregated from the rest of the lower bowl. They're even colored differently and have the Devils logo emblazoned on the back of each seat. VIP, ya know.

Tickets here go for $250 a pop, compared to $96 for the same seat in Philadelphia. It fosters a corporate attitude in which people don't sit in the seats, instead opting to hang out in the private concourse with their suits and bow ties. Hedge funds are more exciting than hockey, apparently.

The impact of this is rather obvious during the game when empty seats in that section are commonplace, but it's also pretty evident during warmups as well. Everybody who's been to a game in Philadelphia has seen how fans gather behind the player benches during warmups, standing up watching the action on the ice. It builds excitement, doesn't it?

In New Jersey, you can do that, but you have to stand over in a small area to the side of these center ice sections. You're basically crammed into one tiny area practically at each goal line with anybody else who might want to get and up-close glimpse at the players before the game begins. Excitement = killed.

This was a serious mistake by my estimation -- putting 2,300 club seats in the areas closest to the players and the ice. But premium customers sell tickets, right? Who cares about the experience of the everyday, working fan?

THE BANDWAGON

I didn't really take the "uh oh, up there with the crazies" comment from John and his friend too seriously. I mean, I'm from Philly, right? As it turns out, it really wasn't all that crazy at all. Most of the people in my section were extremely unoriginal in their "insults," to which I responded with a lot of laughter and a lot of "come on, that's all you've got?" remarks.

For example, a few of the things I heard screamed at me by the "crazies."

  • Richards (whose name was stretched across my back) sucks.
  • Flyers suck.
  • Boucher sucks.
  • How old were you in 1975?
  • You suck.

And literally, that's about it. Most of the fans up here seemed to be very, very bandwagon. They either wore "Red Alert" t-shirts that were handed out during Game 1 or they wore nothing Devils at all. Maybe a hat. That's not to say there weren't people with Devils jerseys on, and there are a lot of those people at the Rock who do clearly care a lot about their team, especially in the cheap seats.

But to say that those people actually outnumber the people who were clearly there just to see PLAYOFF HOCKEY is just not accurate. I can make this claim for many reasons. The lack of Devils apparel is the obvious one, but the actions of these people are even more of a dead giveaway.

Let's look at some of the chants that the "crazies" engaged in on Friday night.

  • Let's Go Devils, quite often. 
  • Flyers suck, again quite often.
  • SHOOOOOOT! Even when the puck was loose. All the time really, even more than morons in Philly who do it (which I didn't think was possible).
  • The dumbest chant in hockey: "HEY, YOU SUCK." Here's a video from YouTube. Think about it. Your team just scored a goal. You are celebrating that goal. You're also screaming "YOU SUCK." Of course, they intend to tell the other team they suck, but it certainly seems like they're telling their own team they suck, doesn't it? Watch the video again. It's dumb, but everybody does it -- even the bandwagoners.
  • Lots of complaining about even obvious penalties. My entire section was in an uproar when Darroll Powe and Ilya Kovalchuk were called off for concurrent minors. "Bull shit" chant, whole nine yards.

A lot of these people -- again, mostly wearing little to zero Devils apparel -- were just downright rude. Maybe this is what John and his friend meant by the "crazies," but it was obvious that a lot of people were just there to get drunk and antagonize people, much like the unfortunate crowd you see at Phillies games these days. That said, I saw stuff in section 228 and 229 on Friday night that is much worse than anything I've ever seen in Philadelphia.

THE 'PHILLY-LIKE' STUFF

The Devils mascot, which is uber lame on it's own, stood between the two sections at one point banging a big drum in an attempt to lead the fans in a "Let's Go Devils." It was during a television timeout, and a Flyer fan came walking up the steps on the wayback to his seat. The mascot blocked the steps and continued banging his drum.

The Flyer fan tried getting by him, given that play was about to start back up again, and the mascot didn't let him through. The guy continued to try to get through, eventually getting past the giant cartoon, but it swung back with his drumstick in another attempt to bang the obnoxious drum, but this time he caught the Flyer fan right in the side of the head with the big plastic ball on the end of the stick. (The drum stick sort of looked like this one, minus the child's drum.)

The guy was pissed, as any normal human being would be, grabbing the stick out of the hand of the animation and proceeded back to his seat. Several fans from atop section 229 threw beers at him, even hitting him and his girlfriend once, I believe. Good aim? Prudential Center security came over and removed the Flyer fan and his girlfriend from the section, and I can only assume, the game. Kicked out of the game because a cartoon assaulted him. The fans who threw the beers, by the way, were left to carry on for the remainder of the game despite the pleas of a whole group of Flyers fans in 229 who were pointing them out to security.  Absolutely pathetic.

During the second intermission, my girlfriend and I took a trip to the bathrooms. She was out before I was, waiting along the wall for me outside. During her wait, a grown man said "nice jersey, faggot" to her. She's 20 years old, looks innocent as can be, and she was alone. What the hell kind of human being would do something like this? They come from the same cloth as those who vomit on 11-year-olds, I imagine.

I'm not pointing out these things to try to paint a negative picture of Devils fans or anything, but I do it for two reasons: one, to show that, no, this bullshit doesn't just happen in Philadelphia. Two though, and more importantly, to illustrate the fact that a lot of these people are just drunks. Not hockey fans, not Devils fans. 

A STRONG FOUNDATION

Overall, the biggest impression I got out of my first encounter with the Devils fan base is that there's just a general lack of interest. The atmosphere on the whole is rather sterile, despite the drunk bafoons -- "crazies," if you will -- in the upper deck. On about 10 occasions, the scoreboard prompted fans to stand up and waive their free "Red Alert" rally towels. Maybe a third of the crowd actually did it each time. When prompted to "Make Some Noise" by the scoreboard, fans didn't really respond either.

During goals and scrums and other exciting moments in a very exciting game, the place did get pretty loud. It wasn't Wachovia Center loud by any stretch, but I'm willing to chalk that up to the acoustics of the building. During a normal stretch of play, however, Prudential Center was rather timid.

I have to admit: some of the chants from the die-hards were quite clever. During the penalty kill for example, fans chant "KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!" over and over again until the puck is cleared. I like this. There's also some long form chant where it seems a few fans (or maybe one guy?) leads the crowd in a "Gimme a D! D! etc." type thing.

The problem with these? Maybe 10 people are doing them. That's an exaggeration, of course, but it's completely obvious that maybe -- maybe -- half the people can tell what's going on.

There was a family in front of me; a dad and his two young boys. The dad and I talked back and forth throughout the game, and during the first intermission, he told me that as a season ticket holder, he was glad to see the building so full for the playoffs. We talked about the subject for a while, with him telling me how there's a really strong foundation down but that the team hasn't been able to gather fans in droves.

This seemed pretty accurate with what I was seeing. Yes, there are the die-hards. There are the folks who have season tickets, painted faces, and an unrelenting love for the New Jersey Devils; the people who come up with the clever chants and the people who actually do stand up and waive their towels.

The problem is that there aren't enough of these people. It's a small fan base, and hopefully a beautiful new building can turn some of these rather disinterested band wagoners into die-hards.

That sort of transformation is exactly what the Devils organization needs to compete with the Flyers, the Rangers and the Islanders. It's possible for them, and I think it would be good for all of us if it happens. The foundation is there, but the house isn't built just yet.

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