There are many things you don’t expect to find when you leave the friendly confines of Manhattan for a New Jersey Devils game in the city of Newark: running water and safety immediately come to mind, but at the top of the list might be this — a good Jewish deli. Yet there I was, an hour before the second game of the Devils/Canes series on Friday night, surrounded by families decked out in Brodeur jerseys (with a few Stevens’ thrown in for variety) at Hobby’s Deli perusing the gameday menu. For those of you who tuned into the IllegalCurve radio show a few weeks ago (available here), this is the same deli that our guest Stan Fischler cited when defending Newark against claims it was an unsavory neighborhood with nothing to do. Fischler, and other local hockey luminaries are enshrined on the blackboards with sandwiches named after them (but if you have the privilege of venturing to Hobby’s you could do worse than ordering the #5 Pastrami/Corned Beef combo).
Aside from the sandwich, the great discovery at Hobby’s was that there are Real. Hockey. Fans. in New Jersey! Yes, half the seats at the Rock (as the new Prudential Center arena has been christened) are empty, and yes, you can walk up at gametime and get a seat for $20, but those who are there know their hockey. But honestly, when a team has spent the last 20 years playing in a horrible building in the middle of a giant parking lot complex known as the Meadowlands, and when that same team has mastered the bore-them-to sleep strategy fondly known as the neutral zone trap, is it really a surprise that not everyone else is on board with the NJD? Not really. If anything, the extra leg room to the left and right of everyone in attendance just goes to show to an even greater degree how passionate these fans are about their team.
That said….it is absolutely shocking that an NHL team exists here in Newark. Though the Rock is a nice enough facility, it is truly an island unto of itself as a couple steps from the arena is a neighbourhood that can only be described as being less than pristine. To put it mildly, if the Devils win the Cup (and from the way they played in the second half of their 2-1 OT loss to the Canes on Friday that is a big “If”), the fans will not exactly have a Red Mile-like drag to spill out on to for celebrations. For anyone who subscribes to the school of thought that sports teams bring urban renewal to their neighborhoods, the Devils appear to be a case study in the counterpoint (though Hobby’s was doing a brisk game night business!).
All in all, a visit to the Devils new home makes one wonder how certain American cities sustain franchises while the likes of Hamilton, Winnipeg, and Quebec City do not. Certainly these markets would fill the house for a playoff game, recession be damned. However, the trek to Newark also is nevertheless heartening, revealing that true hockey fans exist across the league, even where you may not expect them.
For Illegal Curve, I’m Joey Swithmick.