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Jersey Tour Report: New Brunswick & Rutgers

Late in July, the New Jersey Devils began an effort called the Jersey Tour.  Team owner Jeff Vanderbeek, along with three Devils alumni, Grant Marshall, Bruce Driver, and Ken Daneyko, would stop at a public place and hear questions and requests directly from the fans.  The first stop was in Long Branch, and I was able to go and cover the event thanks to the Devils organization. At the time, I noted that it would be the first of four stops.

Tonight, the Jersey Tour continued (sans Matt Loughlin, who was working the Devils game tonight) at the Harvest Moon in New Brunswick and at Rutgers, specifically the Livingston Campus Student Center in Piscataway.  The ninth and tenth stops on the tour, respectively.  There are even two more stops, one in Jersey City this week and one in Trenton next week.  Clearly, the Jersey Tour has turned out to be a popular move by the Devils.  Both among season ticket holders, who filled up RSVP spots as fast as they were announced by email; and by people walking up to the event, especially at Livingston.   Each stop had more than a 100 people show up (at least 150 at Rutgers) not only on a weeknight, but on the same night of a home preseason game.  I'd say it's been a successful marketing effort and I hope the Devils consider doing this again in the future.

That said, I would like to thank the Devils organization once again for inviting me to cover both stops.  I would also like to thank Matt for covering tonight's game on such short notice. Go here for his recap of the game. What follows  after the jump are my report of both events.

New Brunswick - The Harvest Moon

There has been some construction in the city recently, leading to some delays from the players.  I met Grant Marshall prior to the event, and had to help Bruce Driver figure out where to park.  Everyone involved found where they needed to be eventually, but then there was another complication. There was audio trouble on the second floor of the bar/restaurant, so everything was moved down to the first floor and the event started about 20 minutes later than advertised.  It made for a crowded event, but no one seemed too put off by it or the delay.   After all, they were here to hear from Jeff and the alumni and, more importantly, give their two cents to them.

With Loughlin away, Grant Marshall became the emcee of the night.   Each of the three players and Jeff had their own spiel before opening up the floor to questions.  Bruce Driver talked about the alumni association, the work they did along with the few games they played (and Ken Daneyko's performance in them).   Ken Daneyko re-told his draft day story, where he got an early call that he was drafted, celebrated, then asked the guy on the phone who he got drafted by, and then asked his mom where New Jersey is.   All three emphasized that they truly do like it here, they didn't want to go back to Canada, and their evidence was in Driver and Daneyko having raised their families here and Marshall recently getting married to a Jersey girl.  Jeff Vanderbeek spoke about being amazed by the response to each stop of the tour, how it compelled them to do more stops like this one tonight (I can confirm that's true), and not only as a way to market the team, but to reach out and hear from the fans what they have to say.

Once spiels were done, the questions began.  I have summarized the question and response as best as I can.

Question 1) What is it about the Devils organization that not only brings in players, but even has players want to come back and/or stay?

Answer 1) Marshall summed up the answer as that the organization not only has the same passion and drive for success as the players, but they care about the players as much as they care about success.  Daneyko concurred, stating that the team has always treated him fairly both in good times and in bad times; therefore, he never felt a reason to leave.  Driver gave a more intriguing response.  He noted that the team's consistent commitment to icing a competitive team has been a draw. But he also made the point that while the perception to others has been "It's Lou's way or the highway," the players were treated far better than the perception let on.

Vanderbeek tied the question back into the tour itself, that it wasn't just for reaching out to the fans and marketing, but to show off a little pride. I believe his phrase was "puff our chests out."   Other players in the league certainly know about New Jersey's always putting out a team that could achieve greatness.  What also helps is that they hear from other players about how good the schools are, that you can visit the beach or go hunt in the woods in the same stat, that there are so many opportunities after hockey in New Jersey, that they have a practice rink attached to the arena and unlike Columbus (the other organization that has that), the Devils are competitive from year to year.  That also sells the organization on a player.

Vanderbeek summed it up the best when he said, "We're a little defeatist in New Jersey for one reason or another. But put it this way: Ilya Kovalchuk's choices were Los Angeles or us.  And he picked us. That means something."  That definitely elicited some cheers (the first of several at the Harvest Moon).

Question 2) Why did the NHL punish New Jersey for the Kovalchuk contract but not others with similar deals?

Answer 2) Vanderbeek fielded this question by stating that the issue was largely between the NHL and NHLPA, and they were caught in the middle.  He reiterated that the Devils did not violate the CBA, they followed it to the letter of the law. 

Question 3) In those seasons that you won a Stanley Cup, when did you really feel confident that you will win it all?

Answer 3) Daneyko stepped up first to answer this by emphasizing that he went through a lot of "lean years" in the organization, where they didn't win many games much less make the playoffs.  Daneyko went on to say that a lot of it has to do with the mindset of not only the players but the organization. That other organizations are content to just make the playoffs, whereas the Devils eventually built up the mindset that the goal for every season should be to win the Stanley Cup.  Eventually, he admitted that losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994 really sparked him and the team. That they came so close that they realized that they could do this.  While 1995 wasn't smooth, once they got into the postseason, the fire came back and it helped drive them through the playoffs.

Driver took the mic and added to Daneyko's thoughts. He emphasized that it does take time for any player to build up that confidence, it simply doesn't happen overnight.  Driver also noted that talent alone isn't enough, the team needs the right character instilled in the personnel to get there.

Question 4) What are the Devils plans for the future after Martin Brodeur?

Answer 4) Marshall answered first, since he went up to Lowell frequently and saw the AHL team perform.   He said that Jeff Frazee he needs to take care of himself better. Not just physically, but mentally. Not just right before a game, but weeks ahead of time.  Martin Brodeur is one of the greats because he has a high work ethic to get himself ready.  Frazee has talent, he just has some ways to go.  Marshall also had the same analysis for other AHL players, like Alexander Vasyunov and Nick Palmieri.

Vanderbeek brought up that the Devils did draft two goaltenders this summer, and then discussed free agency. He noted that the market has changed with respect to goaltenders, and now you can find a few quality goalies available every summer.  He used Johan Hedberg as an example. He even brought up the Flyers utilizing multiple, inexpensive goaltenders last season to some success as another example of how the market changed.

Question 5) What has been the team's reaction to the NHL's penalty of forfeiting draft picks.

Answer 5) Vanderbeek said he really can't comment and reiterated the team's previous statement regarding the penalties.

Question 6) What happened to plans to build a tunnel from Newark Penn Station to the Prudential Center?

Answer 6) Vanderbeek started off by saying that were no actual plans to build a tunnel.  He did have a response, though.  He did divulge that there were plans for Penn Station to expand south, a bridge would be built over Route 21, and would take people right to Triangle Park (not built yet).  When the economy suffered, those plans were put aside. That said, Vanderbeek says they will be able to begin work on Triangle Park in the coming spring.   Vanderbeek then continued on to note some of the new developments around the arena.

Question 7) This wasn't really a question but a fan thanked the Devils for keeping the ticket prices reasonably low relative to the Rangers. Especially for the playoffs.  Vanderbeek thanked her all the same.

Question 8) Did you (the alumini) play some games harder and more seriously than others?

Answer 8) The questioner was a youth hockey player, so the alumni focused on that aspect. Daneyko said that in his experience, he had to give 100% every night or else he thought that would be the end of his career.  He did admit that he got more fired up for games against rivals, and that while he is professional on-air, Steve Cangelosi has to calm him down as he sees the Devils play (especially poorly) off the air. 

Driver answered the question in a broader sense - that it's important to have fun now, but as a player moves up the ranks, they have to take every game more seriously.  Scouts are at every level and they will look at a 13, 14, or 15 year old player for the future.  Even if the goal isn't professional hockey, to advance, one must be seriously committed to every game. Daneyko re-took the mic and emphasized the importance of consistency; that while people know you may not be at your best every night, they want to see it 9 times out of 10.   That's what scouts, coaches, etc. want to see when they talk about consistency.

Question 9) Is there any hope of New Jersey hosting an All-Star Game or Winter Classic?  Also, are there plans for the Devils to memorialize Dr. John McMullen at the Prudential Center or elsewhere?

Answer 9) Vanderbeek said that the organization is looking to do something to memorialize Dr. McMullen.

As for the All-Star Game, Vanderbeek was confident that New Jersey will host one at some point. It's not that there's any list of prerequisites the team must meet, but they've had those discussions with the league. It is in the cards.

They've had some discussions with the NHL on the Winter Classic as well. Vanderbeek said the league will definitely do one in the tri-state area in the future. What makes it tricky is that for a Winter Classic, the stadium is booked for 3 weeks - not just for the Winter Classic game, but other games, rink time bought by the public, etc.  Since the New Meadowlands Stadium hosts two football teams, that makes it difficult. Yankee Stadium has been brought up as an idea, but they are hosting a college bowl game right around New Year's Day.   There's a lot to be ironed out, but when one comes to the area, Vanderbeek said the Devils will be involved.

Question 10) What is the long term plan with the Trenton Devils?

Answer 10) Vanderbeek said they want to grow the organization.  Since this was the last question, the response was more succinct, but he did admit the long term plans for the Devils was to bring both affiliates in the state New Jersey at some point. So Trenton definitely has a long term future.

The event concluded with a raffle for some autographed memorabilia and fans could take pictures, get autographs, and talk to the players and Vanderbeek one-on-one. They also got a free t-shirt if they so desired to want one. At this point, I moved on over to the second stop of the night in nearby Piscataway. 

Rutgers - Livingston Student Center

The student center was recently renovated, and the Devils had control of a large multipurpose room next to the RutgersZone (an arcade-slash-ice cream shop with TVs and tables and the most impressive air hockey table I ever saw).  I got there at about 8:15, and when I did there was about 7 other people.  As the event grew closer to the 8:30 PM time, more and more showed up - about a hundred or so.  Even more people filed in as it started, and there were a few stragglers that came in during the event.  The Devils ran out of free t-shirts and they had about 140 of them set aside for this stop.

Incidentally, I didn't notice anyone who wasn't me or in the Devils organization that was at both events.

The players made their usual introductions.  Well, there were two difference. The first was that Bruce Driver brought up his playing days in college, back in the University of Wisconsin.  He noted that his main goal was to get an education, though later admitted that the opportunity of pro hockey was too good to pass up when it came. The second was that Vanderbeek went more in length of his days growing up in NJ.  That if you liked hockey there were only two teams - the Rangers and the Islanders, who won something.  Now it's as important to cultivate the youth as it is to draw new fans since there is a New Jersey Devils.

Question 1) This wasn't a question so much as it was an idea.  I think the gist of it was that the team should come up with on-demand coverage of Devils games similar to Netflix?  I didn't quite fully grasp the idea in my notes, as interesting as it sounded. Apologies to the man who came up with it.

Question 2) A few seasons back, a concession stand sold buffalo chicken strips and they were his favorite food. Yet, this past season, he went to every stand and no one sold it.  Can they bring them back?

Answer 2) Vanderbeek said he'll look into it - and that he would want some of those strips as well.

Question 3) An admitted casual fan asked: Have there been any talks with the league on the Devils taking part in a Winter Classic?

Answer 3) Vanderbeek gave an answer very similar, if not exact, to the one given at the Harvest Moon.  It's a fair question; perhaps the word needs to be put out more? Anyway, please see Answer 9 from the prior section for that response.

Question 4) This one was for Ken Daneyko: How do you stay calm on broadcasts, especially when the Devils play a rival team?

Answer 4) Daneyko said that on the air, he tries to be professional and analytical and succeeds. But  he's not a dispassionate observer. Off the air or in breaks, Steve Cangelosi has to calm him down from the cussing and ranting.  He does get the urge to want to get on the ice on bonk some heads, but knows he can't do that anymore.

Question 5) Are there any plans for Scott Stevens to put into a coaching role in the organization?

Answer 5) Vanderbeek responded by saying that Stevens is already a coach.  While he doesn't travel with the team, he is present in practices and at home.  He has been working in preseason, particularly with the young defensemen.

Question 6) A fan noted that for College Nights, he takes the train from New Brunswick to the Prudential Center.  Since college fans tend come from the same area, is there a way to combine a train ticket with the game ticket, offering both for one set price?

Answer 6) Vanderbeek liked that idea.  He went on to say that the Devils has tried to work with NJ Transit with respect to ticket prices, noting that 53% of the fanbase took a train to the game last season. But since NJ Transit has no money, prices had to be hiked.  But Vanderbeek says he'll look into that idea.

Question 7) What do you (the alumni) think of the Devils offseason and the direction they are going in?

Answer 7) Daneyko fielded this one and was enthusiastic for each of the signings.  He is also confident in John MacLean as a head coach, that he's a communicator and that's important since "the old days of Lombardi blasting a team 24/7" were over. He does feel he is more offensive minded and that's a positive as the league as a whole has become more offensive minded.  Daneyko finished it up by saying that the current group of forwards may be the most talented this organization has ever seen.

Question 8) This one was for the alumni: What arena was your favorite place to play?

Answer 8) Driver started off by saying he enjoyed playing in each of the original six cities, particularly Maple Leaf Gardens since he was a Leaf fan growing up.  Marshall concurred, as he was also a Leaf fan growing up and dreamed of stepping on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens.  He also liked the Montreal Forum, like Driver.  Daneyko said he liked Boston Garden and the old Chicago Stadium, where the fans were seemingly on top of the rink. 

Question 9) The Flyers do a good job of putting up several billboards up on I-95; when will the Devils have billboards up around the Turnpike, Rt. 287, etc.?

Answer 9) Vanderbeek first said that the Devils are using billboards as advertising, they are on the newer LED billboards (I can personally confirm that). Vanderbeek went on to re-emphasize that while they certainly could put a player or a few on a billboard, they want to advertise the team and not the individual.   The organization will market the Devils more aggressively, though he didn't say whether that meant more billboards or not.

Question 10) Do the Devils have any internships for college students?

Answer 10) Vanderbeek handled this question as well.  He said that now the Devils have their own arena and even some property around the arena, they split up the organization between hockey operations (guess who runs that) and business operations. For the business side, the Devils have put together a training program in sports management and have been taking resumes for the first class of interns.  It's not just summer internships, there will be opportunities throughout the year. 

Question 11) Two (or three?) years ago, the Devils had a free shuttle service from the Prudential Center to the Newark Broad Street Station and back. While there's a light rail service between Broad Street and Penn Station, it gets crowded - especially during the playoffs.  Will those shuttles return at some point in the future?

Answer 11) Vanderbeek said that other buses in the city ran that same route and by the end of the season, shuttle usage was very low, well under 50% capacity.  Since they weren't being used at a high enough capacity to justify the time and resources to have them, they weren't continued.   There aren't any current plans to bring them back, and this was the first time he was asked about them.  Vanderbeek said he could take another look at it, though.

Question 12) For the alumni: Who was your favorite player to play with and against?

Answer 12) Daneyko gave a non-committal answer to the "with" part of the question, saying all of the teammates regardless of how much he played with them contributed in some way and that should be appreciated. As for the "against," Daneyko relished playing against the top offensive players in the league, like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Wayne Gretzky.  As a defensive defensemen, he wanted to know whether he could handle them on a given night. 

Driver gave a similar answer to the "against" side, since he too was a defenseman.  Driver did give an actual answer to the "with" portion: Ken Daneyko.  Daneyko was often Driver's partner, he was roommates with him for years, and they've built a rapport over the years. 

Marshall said he enjoyed playing with Martin Brodeur and Mike Modano, who Marshall praised specifically for his skating ability.   As for the flipside, Marshall said that he really couldn't stand playing against Darius Kasparaitis. 

Question 13) For the alumni: Other than winning the Stanley Cups, what other moment as a Devil stood out in their career?

Answer 13) Driver brought up a few. The earliest he mentioned was being faced with the decision to turn professional. At the time, Driver was on a very successful University of Wisconsin team which made the decision hard. However, he felt going pro was an opportunity too good to pass up and since then, he's enjoyed a long career. His first NHL goal was against the Maple Leafs, which was special to him as his family and friends saw it in addition to scoring on his favorite team as a child.  Then, there was the first time the Devils made the playoffs, which was huge not only for him but for the organization as a whole.

Daneyko brought up two moments. The first was when the Devils qualified for the playoffs for the first time, how they celebrated like they won the Stanley Cup after 6 long years of bad hockey.  The second was when his number was retired. That it was celebrated really hammered home the point of how highly he was regarded.  Since retiring, he has a better appreciation of all of the special players he played with - something he didn't really get while playing.

For Marshall, it was getting traded to New Jersey along with scoring that series clinching goal in triple overtime against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2003 playoffs.  The trade had this funny anecdote.  Marshall found out from the news that he was going to be traded, so he asked the GM of Columbus of where he's going.  After some hemming and hawing, Marshall gets told he's going to New Jersey.  Afterward, in his hotel room, Marshall's watching Sportscenter, and they had this quiz on which NHL player played the most playoff games without scoring a goal. The first option was Daneyko, and Marshall knew it couldn't be him since he did (somehow) score in the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals. The second option was his buddy, whose name I forgot to write down, and Marshall knew it wasn't him. The third option was someone Marshall forgot, and the fourth one was - Grant Marshall.  After the commercial break, it was revealed that the answer was Marshall.  A brief hit to the pride.  So when Marshall arrived in New Jersey, the first player he met was Martin Brodeur.  Brodeur's first words to Marshall were: "Do you know I have more playoff goals than you?"  This was repeated after the Boston series, but the Tampa Bay series and his heroics allowed him to go back to Brodeur saying, "You're not going to catch me now, I have three goals now!" (Marshall would go on to have 6 in 2003). It certainly was a funny anecdote in the room.

That was the end of the questions, some stuff was given away (bobbleheads here), and the players and Vanderbeek hung around to take pictures, sign autographs, and talk with the people one-on-one. 

Incidentally, no one brought up tonight's game at either event.  Not an announcement of a score or the Devils ultimately winning.  That strikes me, looking back on it.  Then again, it is a preseason game, and if they cared that much about it, well, they would have went to the game instead of either event.

Also: I got to make my one question to the Devils staff.  How come the Flyers are able to provide streaming video of their preseason games, like tonight, but the Devils aren't doing this? They thought it was a good, sensible point, and they'll look into the possibility. I have no idea whether they could, given their broadcasting contracts, but it's something. I only regret not asking Vanderbeek himself about that, but I'm a little confident he'll hear about it.

One more thing: A quick shout-out to Mark and Brian, who each identified me in the crowd at each stop, respectively, and chatted about Devils hockey for a bit. OK, the notepad and my scribbling sort of gave me away; but the kind words they had were appreciated.

Again, I want to thank the Devils for inviting me to cover both events; and I want to thank you for reading all of this.  The Jersey Tour has two more stops: Jersey City and Trenton. I don't know where exactly, but if you have the opportunity to go, then do so.  If only to ask whatever question you may have to the owner of the Devils.   Please leave your thoughts about either event and future ones (e.g. Do you think they should do more events like this? What else should they do?) in the comments.