There are a couple of things you're told about the Prudential Center before you ever go there. The first thing is that it's never full because the New Jersey Devils don't draw fans. The second is that Newark is not the nicest place, and when you get off the train when arriving from New York City, stay in the huddle of people heading to the game because the weak ones get picked off.
Because Newark is Mad Max in modern times, right?
Neither of these things are really true. I ended up taking a cab into New Jersey, but to catch one on the way back we had to go by the train station. It's a little bit sketchy to be sure, but two drunk guys wearing Habs jerseys never got bothered by a soul, so I think you're probably okay to not be afraid.
As for the Prudential center itself, it's selling out quite often this season, which is a shock to a lot of people who look down their nose, but it also makes sense given the history of the team. The Devils' trap permeated the NHL and nearly ruined offensive hockey before the 2004 lockout, but the Devils are a success story.
Three Stanley Cup banners hand proudly above the visiting goal in the 1st and third periods, and the young people who were swayed to become Devils fans in 1994 when they had their first iconic series against the Rangers, and in 1995 when they won their first Stanley Cup, are now middle aged adults with good jobs who can afford season tickets. The Devils are finally benefiting from home grown, long time fans, instead of converted Rangers and Islanders fans.
If I had a single word to sum up the experience of going to a Devils game, I would use "impressive".
What instantly stands out at the Prudential center is that it's new. The group that I was with, two Habs fans (including myself) and two Devils fans walked through the red glass doors near the Devils' official store to get a metal detector waved around and patted down (this is America after all), and into a huge hallway with more than enough room to move side to side.
If you're used to the Bell Center, this is a welcome feeling. The thing about the Bell Centre is that there's no better place in the world to see hockey, but it was built to see hockey and everything else was secondary. They know you're going to go, so there's no reason to wow you with extras.
The Devils though, go the extra mile. I was lucky enough to have seats in the 4th row of the "fire" section, right by the Devils' blueline on the penalty box side for the first and third periods, which includes all you can eat free food. At first I wasn't too excited about that, because while I'd heard the Prudential Center has good food, I'd also heard the Bell Centre has the league's best hot dogs.
Am I saying the famous Bell Centre hot dogs aren't good? Yes, I am. They're shit, and I judge you for liking them. And they're not even served on a bun, it's that stupid Pom hot dog thing that's really a bunch of small slices of bread folded in half. It's crap, and they're absurdly expensive.
Then I walked into the section which is behind the seats, where food and drinks are served, to see a guy in a chef hat slicing smoked meat. Another guy was arranging a plate of fresh fruit, and yet another making some sushi. Holy crap.
Over on the other side, fresh burgers, fried chicken, fries, and hot dogs are put out for you to just grab, you don't even have to order, because it's free. And the food is really, really good.
Like the Bell Centre, if you're late for the period because you're grabbing food and drinks, they won't like you down the rows to take your seats and obstruct everyone else's views, but from this vantage there's a nice deck that spans the entire width of the eating area where you can watch the game, so it's no big deal if you're late.
Down in the stands, the seats are leather and there's ample leg room, and there are cup holders in the seats in front of you. Etiquette is that you use the cup holder to your left, according to the Devils fans we were with. It makes for a seriously comfortable experience, which was really nice when the Devils decided to have an overly long opening ceremony for longtime goaltending coach Jacques Caron where he rambled about how in his day the fashion was to wear an onion on your belt.
The atmosphere was a little strange for the game, but not because of Devils fans. 8 or 9 buses of Quebec Nordiques fans rolled in for the night to cheer against the Habs. The Nords fans were by far the loudest of anyone in the arena, singing out a couple chants, and cheering like crazy whenever the Devils had the puck in the Habs' zone.
The feeling among Devils fans was one that Habs fans should all be familiar with after last season, as it was a little apprehensive. I think they know that they have a good team, but they also know that they've been getting burned a lot lately by some bad bounces and some lack of finish, so there was hesitation to get too excited.
When the Devils did score, it got very loud in the arena, but from where I was sitting it was hard to tell how much of it was fan noise. One reason was that most of the fans were behind me, but the main one is that New Jersey's goal horn is about 3 times louder than the Canadiens'. It drowned out everything else and shook the floor. Impressive PA system, but maybe overcompensating?
New Jersey fans were remarkably chill to hang out with and talk to, and they have great respect for the Montreal Canadiens. And why wouldn't they? Their system that won them three cups was designed by Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson, and it's easy to love a team that you've dominated for 20 years as well.
It was a great place to see Colby Armstrong net his first goal as a Montreal Canadien, and Jarred Tinordi's first assist as an NHLer was 15 feet in front of my face.
This may come back to bite me in the world of predictions, but I think New Jersey is on the verge of getting out from under their reputation as a struggling fanbase.
Also screw the Rangers. Thanks to John, Bill, and Christian.