Arthur E. Imperatore Sr, a pillar of New Jersey industry, died on Wednesday at age 95. Most know him as the man who founded NY Waterway, the ferry and bus service between North Jersey and New York, and as such the creator of the modern commuter ferry. He was already a successful trucking magnate before that. Years before one could take a ferry from Hoboken to New York, though, he had another business venture. He bought the Colorado Rockies hockey team with the intention of bringing an NHL team to New Jersey.
Imperatore bought the Rockies in July of 1978 from Jack Vickers, who had to offload the team after his oil business cratered. Imperatore made his goal clear from the get-go: move the team to New Jersey as soon as possible. His original plan – move the team immediately and have them play at Madison Square Garden until the Meadowlands was ready – didn’t quite work out due to lease issues. Even so, this just delayed his plan by two more seasons, and by 1980, the team would hit the road.
Fan response to this was predictably abysmal, and his pledge to prove Denver as a viable market for another expansion team felt like a backhanded compliment. Imperatore also faced the issue that Flyers President Ed Snider vowed to veto any move near his team.
Imperatore put his stepson, Armand Pohan, in charge of the team. Pohan quickly realized that his stepfather made a bad investment, but tried to make the best of it because they already made a commitment. By the two year mark, it was clear that his move wasn’t going to happen: their lease with the city was onerous, fans weren’t coming to see a lame-duck franchise, and they weren’t generating revenue with the few people there.
In 1981, Imperatore sold the team to Buffalo-based cable TV magnate Peter Gilbert – who met Pohan at a 1980 Rockies game in Buffalo and immediately asked if the team was for sale -for a reported $7 million. Both Gilbert and league President John Ziegler pledged to keep the team in Colorado. Nonetheless, Gilbert faced his own problems with the franchise and sold it in 1982 to a group led by John McMullen – who finally executed Imperatore’s wish and moved the team to the Meadowlands. The New Jersey Devils were finally born.
In 2003, Imperatore and Pohan met with Denver Post writer Terry Frei during the Stanley Cup Finals. Imperatore described his time there as flying in after half a day of work, getting a headache and a nosebleed from the altitude, and then see fewer empty seats every single game. When asked about his tenure, he said “In life, you can’t do everything and do it well. We’re guys who try do something and do it well. There’s no other way. We tried. We tried.”