People said it could never happen — that it would never happen.
It didn’t matter where the New Jersey Devils would play, how they would play, or who they would play.
A fanbase would never grow in New Jersey, with the rivaled New York Rangers a mere 25 minutes north and the Philadelphia Flyers an hour south – two teams with much stronger markets.
But, the Devils have proved those people wrong.
During a playoff run last season that watched New Jersey oust the Flyers and Rangers in back-to-back series’, the Devils sold out its state-of-the-art arena, Prudential Center, on a nightly basis, and that has spilled over into this season.
The doubt in New Jersey is understandable. Aside from the aforementioned dilemma of battling with two of the most popular teams in the NHL, the statistics are not on the Devils side. Last year, they finished 24th in average attendance. In 2010-2011, the Devils were 25th.
Those numbers, though, could be considered skewed. Some teams play in different arena sizes than others, allowing their average attendance number to be higher. For example, United Center, the home of the overly-popular Chicago Blackhawks, offers standing room for hockey games. The highest crowd they’ve ever had was 22,077, which is 4,452 more people than what Prudential Center caps out at: 17,625.
So, naturally, the Blackhawks are near the top of average attendance every season, while the Devils are in the back-of-the-pack.
A number that could be looked at, though, is capacity percentage. Last season, the the Flyers led the league with a capacity percentage of 107.4 percent — meaning they eclipsed their sellout number several times, usually because of standing room.
The Devils had 87.4 percentage. That means that most nights, more than 10 percent of the arena was empty. The only teams with a worse number were the Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, and Pheonix Coyotes.
Of those teams, only the Panthers and Coyotes made the playoffs. The Devils eliminated the Panthers in the opening round, and the Coyotes were knocked out in the Western Conference Final by the Los Angeles Kings.
Last season ending in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final could not have been better for New Jersey. Instead of nationwide hockey fans seeing New York, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh — teams that are showed on national broadcasts virtually every weekend — they got to see the Devils.
People learned the Newark isn’t a bad place to go, and it’s a city that can support one of the most successful franchises in the NHL, even despite ESPN analyst Barry Melrose‘s ridiculous comments a few years ago.
This season, Prudential Center has continued to sellout. The Devils have sold out every home game except one — a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 8.
With the way things are going, soon New Jersey might be a more popular place to go see a hockey game than New York City.
Well, maybe not more popular. But will fans see a better hockey team there? There could be a strong case for that argument to be made.