I had never been happier to drive through downtown Newark, New Jersey and watch a New Jersey Devils game than I was last week.
For the first time in a year, the doors to Prudential Center were open for fans to see some live New Jersey Devils action. A lot had changed, but a lot had also remained the same.
Following an announcement a few weeks ago, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy announced that sports stadiums can allow 10 percent fan capacity. That meant that Prudential Center could allow roughly 1,500 depraved hockey fans back through its doors.
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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a similar measure a few weeks earlier. Like most things, New Jersey follows New York’s lead. Once New York announced fans were returning, it was only a matter of time before their fellow state across the Hudson River followed suit.
I was one of the 1,500 hockey fans on hand to see the New Jersey Devils take on the New York Islanders last week. The Devils didn’t play well, but let me tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever been that happy seeing them lose. Here’s what the experience was like.
Before Entering The Arena
The first thing I noticed was the parking situation. While every arena is different, Prudential Center has its own parking garage as well as various other independently run lots surrounding it. As I drove to the game most of these smaller lots were closed. Of course, with only 10 percent of a normal crowd, there was a lot less demand for parking. The smaller lots directly across from the arena were open. I ended up parking my car directly across the street for $20.
As part of the Prudential Center’s strategy to spread out crowds, fans were assigned a certain location and time to enter on their ticket. Prudential Center has two distinct entrances called “towers”, so fans were assigned to one of the two, as well as a time to enter. The time to enter was either 6:00 or 6:30 for the 7:00 game. I got to my assigned entrance rather late, around 6:45. Still, I was in the arena, in my seat, with a beer in my hand, by the time the puck dropped.
Entering The Arena
Unlike New York, New Jersey doesn’t require a negative COVID test to enter. Fans aren’t allowed to bring in bags of any kind, even purses for women, which was a change since last season. The entrance process was normal, as in going through a metal detector, but with the added temperature check. As long as you don’t bring bags and show up at the correct “tower” entrance location, getting in was rather easy. Employees were advising people to make sure they were at the correct entrance location, as printed on their ticket.
Most of the arena’s concession stands were closed. When I say “most”, I mean roughly 60 percent. That includes both the larger food stands and the smaller concession carts. Enough were open to handle the crowd though. Remember, only 10 percent of a normal crowd was there that night. A food stand and a beer stand, two separate things, happened to be open right by my seats in the 100 level. That was very convenient for me so I didn’t go out searching for anything else in terms of food or drinks.
A lot of stadiums are using “contactless payments” in this day and age, meaning cards only and no cash. Prudential Center, at least the stands I personally went to, were accepting cash. That was a welcome surprise, as I’m used to paying with cash (ask any Italian from New Jersey and they’re more likely to pay with a rubber band full of cash in their pocket than a credit card.) All stands had the typical precautions you would see, such as floor markers to keep distance as well as
There was Plexiglas separating customers from cashiers, and another added precaution was that instead of being served in a tray, food was handed over in a paper bag. Condiment stations were also nonexistent. If you wanted salt, pepper, ketchup, etc. you were given individual packets.
Even though I saw a lot of food stands closed, every gift shop I passed was open. Well, every in-arena gift shop, at least. I didn’t have a chance to pass the main team store “Devils Den” that has entrances both inside and outside the arena. All gift shops had security guards and ushers counting and maintaining capacity limits.
There were a lot of things different about going to a New Jersey Devils game in 2021
Let’s Talk About Masks
As part of their reopening, masks were required. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Masks were required unless you were actively eating or drinking at your seat. What I found was the staff was pretty lenient, to me at least, as long as I was “actively eating or drinking”. For example, when I was walking around the concourse with my beer, as long as I was actually drinking, I could have my mask off.
For the record, I know a few fans at the games who said they had different experiences. Some people said the mask rule was enforced too harshly. For example, they were told to put their mask on in-between bites of food. Others said the rules were too lenient, as they saw people without a mask on while watching the game and not eating or drinking.
Going off of that point, I knew a bunch of people also attending the game and we wanted to meet up during intermissions. Some of us were concerned if us gathering (okay, it was only about 10 of us, but still) wouldn’t be allowed. That ended up not being a problem at all. Although seats were spaced out in the actual arena, fans were free to mingle in the concourses. Like I said a million times before, remember, there was only 10 percent of a normal crowd there. There was no crowding to begin with, so a few friends meeting up caused no problems.
The In-Game Experience
Let me define “in-game experience” as everything that goes on during the game that’s not the actual hockey game. For example, intermission entertainment, fan contests, t-shirt tosses, etc. Let’s start with the Zamboni rides. Normally, lucky fans, usually children, are chosen to be the Zamboni riders during intermission. There were no Zamboni riders, although the team did set up a POV video feed to show on the jumbo tron.
As for contests, they were done virtually. The New Jersey Devils are allowing fans at home to do something called a “second screen experience” to watch the game from home from the point of view of being at the stadium, as opposed to the television broadcast. It was fans who were watching from home that were chosen to participate in the in-arena contests and giveaways. No in-person contests were held.
Just like a normal game, they had the usual jumbotron fan moments. The Devils still had their in-arena promo team, called the “Woo Crew” because of the Rick Flair hype video the arena plays, dancing throughout the aisles. While I didn’t see the mascot N.J. Devil posing for pictures and interacting with fans, he did participate in his normal jumbotron shennaigans.
A pleasant surprise was seeing Dancing Earl, an usher at Prudential Center usually featured on the jumbotron, back in action. There were no t-shirt tosses or promotional giveaways. Fans who participated in the virtual contests from home were awarded prizes.
Those Giant tarps that you see on television during games were still there. On one side of the ice, specifically the side of the ice the television cameras are directed at, they remained perfectly intact. On the opposite side, they were rolled down a bit to allow seating in the back rows. Nobody’s seats were anywhere near the ice.
I sat in the 100 levels, right above the lower bowl of seating. The lower bowl and 100 level seating were the only levels utilized. The upper deck of seating, the 200 level, was completely unused.
Seats were sold either in packs of two or four. In my row there was more than six feet in between me and the parties to my left and right. While no one was sitting directly in front of me in the next row, people were sitting in the next row, but in front of the seats left empty between me and the people in my row. Every row was taken, but fans were spread out in an almost checkerboard pattern. The cardboard cutouts that had been in Prudential Center in the fan-less days were spread out among the remaining seats. I was sitting in front of three different Travis Zajac cutouts.
Leaving The Arena
As the game was ending, the public address announcer asked fans to stay in their seats until their section was called to leave. Obviously it was an attempt to spread out the crowds leaving the arena, but it did catch me by surprise. As the clock ran down in an apparent Devils loss (they lost to the Islanders 2-1, but were down 2-0 in the game’s final minutes), a few fans started to make their way towards the exits.
As the game officially ended, the public address announcer once again made the same announcement for fans to wait in their seats until being called to leave. Instead, all fans got up and began to leave at the same time. Remember though, this was 10 percent of a normal crowd, so it’s not like a normal night when 15,000 fans were crowding the exits.
Reason To Be Optimistic
As I was leaving, I overheard someone talk about how they didn’t care that much the Devils lost because they were just glad to be back. The person they were with responded with something along the lines of “this wasn’t a New Jersey Devils game, it was a return to normal”. That return to normal was much needed and welcome. Every arena worker I saw was filled with enthusiasm and optimism. This was a day fans waited over a year for. As one fan’s sign, which ended up on the jumbotron, said, it was great to be back “home sweet home”.