ATLANTIC CITY -- The Phantoms moved from Philadelphia to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York back in the spring of 2009. In a triumphant return home last winter, the Phantoms took on the Norfolk Admirals in front of a very large crowd at Wachovia Center. They lost, but they did a lot of that last year anyway.
Yet again in 2010-11, the Phantoms will be coming home. It'll be a little bit different, however.
The two minor league affiliates of the New Jersey Devils, the AHL's Albany Devils and the ECHL's Trenton Devils, will play a combined five home games next season at Boardwalk Hall here in Atlantic City. In the first of these games on Sunday, December 5 at 5 PM, the Devils will host the Phantoms in what could very well be a largely pro-Adirondack crowd.
For the record, the Phantoms had to agree to play the game at a site other than Albany.
Atlantic City, Atlantic County and the Southern Jersey Shore, as you may know, sits deeply in the Philadelphia media market and is certainly considered Flyers territory. There are Devils fans here, to be sure, but anybody telling you that this area is anything but orange and black is lying to your face.
A press conference on Tuesday morning at the 81-year old Jersey Shore landmark brought out all of the dignitaries, from Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek to GM Lou Lamoriello -- any and all Kovalchuk questions were met with "we can't comment, sorry" -- to NJ's Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno.
They all spoke on the party line: we're "Jersey's Team" and we're here to claim what's ours.
You think that's an exaggeration, don't you?
"We know that the Trenton Devils, Albany Devils and New Jersey Devils are all Jersey teams," said Guadagno, who apparently didn't need to pass a geography test before being sworn into office.
"The Governor is a hockey dad and the Lieutenant Governor is a hockey mom," said Lamoriello. "So if anybody is questioning that the New Jersey Devils hockey team is in a New Jersey Devils state, just think, we finally put in the state a hockey mom and a hockey dad, so we've finally taken control of the state."
Vanderbeek extrapolated that a bit.
"We are not North Jersey's team, we are not Central Jersey's team, and we are certainly not the team in the strip of land between New York and Philadelphia," said Vanderbeek. "This is New Jersey's team and we really need and want to embrace everybody from this state. We really want to expand our reaches."
"Historically, the Flyers have been here a long time. It has been [Flyers territory here]. But at the same time, this is New Jersey. We feel strongly that it's rightfully ours. We're gonna make a concerted effort to try to gain those fans."
Well, nobody can blame them for having ambition, I guess.
"That game on February 11 with match the Devils with the Flyers, going toe-to-toe, said Matt Loughlin, the Devils radio play-by-play voice who served as master of ceremonies at the conference. "We're going to try to turn orange and black into red and black."
This whole thing seems like the part of a larger strategy for the Devils. Along with their "Jersey's Team" marketing slogan, which debuted two seasons ago, they're certainly making a concerted effort to expand their reach outside of North and Central Jersey.
If they were to move their farm team to South Jersey and get involved in the local hockey community -- the rink in AC, by the way, is the Flyers Skate Zone -- there's no disputing they could develop a fan base here. Vanderbeek knows that.
"I think you'll see that accelerate. We might get into affiliations with rinks, as far as youth hockey, further South than we're used to. We have a couple of other ideas that we'll see over the next few years as well."
But do the Devils want to house one of their minor league teams at Boardwalk Hall on a permanent basis? After all, that really would make sense. If they're Jersey's Team, they should have their farm teams in Jersey and they should have a strong presence all over the state.
It really does seem like they're interested. The key word in that sentence is interested, of course, and there's no guarantee that these five games will be successful here. After all, the ECHL's Boardwalk Bullies won a Kelly Cup in 2003 and wound up leaving town just two years later. Bad marketing and poor attendance did them in.
But throughout the hour-long event this morning, both Lamoriello and Vanderbeek kept raving about the beauty of Boardwalk Hall. From the ice plant to the locker rooms to the arena itself, the gentlemen were impressed, much to the pleasure, surely, of the state, who poured $90 million into this building at the turn of the century.
The real question for residents of Southern New Jersey who would love to see hockey back in AC, however, is if these five games will impact the chances of that happening. Of course, the Devils have a commitment in Albany and would never say as much, but reading between the lines a bit, the interest is clear.
"We really hope we're part of a new renaissance here that provides entertainment for all walks of life," said Vanderbeek. A renaissance? You don't become part of a renaissance by playing five games in an otherwise empty building. Then again, they're not really stopping at five games.
"Our intent is to, a year from now, bring an exhibition -- an National Hockey League exhibition game -- into this facility here," Lamoriello said at the podium. Vasser, of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, told me after the conference that he hadn't yet heard that proposal. But, nevertheless.
"This is our toe in the water," said Vanderbeek. "We are looking forward to playing in Albany this season. At the same time, our long-to-mid-range plan will be to have at least one, if not more minor league franchises in New Jersey. It's a possibility."
Whether they admit it or not, and really, they did everything but admit it this morning, the Devils are hoping to bring one of their affiliates to Atlantic City. In an area that's historically been colored with Flyers orange, they want to change that. Putting a team at Boardwalk Hall is the best way to do that.
The NHL defines home territory as a 50 mile radius around the city limits of the city the team plays its home games in. By definition, then, the Flyers home territory is a big 50-mile circle around Philadelphia. Atlantic City is about 52 miles away, according to my rough estimation using Google Earth, but much of the Greater Atlantic City area is clearly within that circle.
A team has the sole right to market its NHL games inside their home territory, according to the NHL's Constitution.
So in terms of marketing these games and promoting their own brand in the future within the South Jersey market, will that impact the way the Devils do business?
"No, not at all," said Vanderbeek. "It doesn't effect [how the Flyers do business].
It'll be interesting to see what becomes of these five minor league games here in Atlantic City this coming season, but even if they aren't successful, one thing is for certain. The Devils have drawn their battle lines, and they're ready for a big time fight with the Flyers over the South Jersey market.