That was an all too common scene at Trenton’s Sun National Bank Center over the past few seasons, right?
Last season, the Devils averaged 2,390 fans, “good” for dead last in the league. Consider the poorly-hidden inflation of said attendance numbers, and it was more realistically 1,500 or less. There were nights, and not just a few, where the crowd…excuse me, small gathering…was under 100 people to watch the opening faceoff.
Was the team ceasing operations and, in the process, the Devils organization admitting they’d erred in purchasing the team four years ago a surprise to anyone? The very, very brief statement that the team issued said that the organization wanted to run their minor league operations more in line with what other teams did, noting that New Jersey was the only team to own their ECHL affiliate. While things were certainly far from fine with the organization before the purchase was made — attendance had already dwindled to 3,515 fans a season in 2006-07 — the Devils organization took a team on the downswing and did absolutely nothing to change that, letting it die.
Promise after promise was made that ultimately went unfulfilled. Player appearances? Nope. Commitment to the city of Trenton? Not so much. Paint the town red? The only red that remains is the blood from the front office casualties who are now out of jobs after being loyal to an organization that ultimately wasn’t loyal to them.
While it would be a stretch to say that the Trenton Devils were a well-run organization, it would be flat-out inaccurate to say that they were ever given a budget even remotely close to what would allow them to be capable of doing so. Virtually any idea that would increase attendance was either too expensive or too much in contrast of the “Devils way.” Minor league hockey is supposed to be fun. There is obviously a very serious element to it, but it’s supposed to be fun, too. Stuff as simple as alternate jerseys were pooh-poohed by the organization. Anything that would spice up a dull product wasn’t allowed.
Red, white and black never seemed so vanila.
The budget was so tight that anything that would actually get people in the seats — the Tony Zancanaro bobblehead, for example — had to be sponsored for it to be approved. Something as simple as sponsor patches on the jerseys, which literally every other team in the league uses to generate revenue, weren’t allowed because it was “minor league.” Yet, New Jersey’s big league approach wiped out their affiliate completely in four seasons.
When the front office, and an impossibly understaffed front office by the way, found out they were out of a job on Tuesday…it couldn’t have been much of a surprise with the way things were going over the past few seasons. And be assured, there were good people who cared in that front office. That’s who you should feel bad for. But they also knew what they were up against.
In my three seasons of covering the team, I watched the fanbase dwindle from nothing to somehow even less. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people told me they’d felt alienated by the team name being switched from “Titans” to “Devils,” and how the way things were done ever since that turned them off. Look at the attendance on “Scott Bertoli Night.” It was a Titans night. And it was…packed is a stretch, but it was very well-attended. Unless it was a scout night or something like that, nearly every other game was played to a largely empty arena. But, to be fair, Devils or Titans…the average attendance literally went down every season of the team’s existence.
However, the Devils flat out didn’t get how to do things at the minor league level, either on or off the ice, and on and off ice results of their affiliates have shown this. Combine that with the borderline-ludicrous idea of having players on ECHL deals not be allowed to sign with other AHL teams, and it’s no wonder things went south on the ice. Why would a ECHL-caliber free agent sign a deal with a team where his options at advancement are limited to just one team and one organization? So the talent in Trenton was generally the best of the rest. Occasionally, they’d stumble onto a gem or make a trade for someone worthwhile…but there was a reason why it took a miracle for a playoff run in 2009 and why they didn’t make it the following two seasons.
The fans in Albany, who ended up getting a few decent players out of the deal, have to wonder if they’re next…will the Devils let our team die too?
As for Trenton, hoping for the Phantoms to show up? Don’t. Everything I’ve been told leads me to believe that won’t happen. Allentown seems like a lock.
Hoping for another buyer? Me too. I enjoyed covering the team, despite the bare-bones operations and difficult to work with organization that was in place — players would be ON THE ICE and as far as Trenton was concerned, it wasn’t official because the New Jersey front office hadn’t let them release the information — but the team lost $1.4 million last season. How, on that budget, they lost that much boggles my mind. But having hockey, and fairly good hockey, to cover was great. But who would step in with those kind of financial numbers — and attendance numbers, for that matter — staring them in the face.
Hoping for another team to eventually replace the Devils? That’s possible. But don’t expect it next season. It’s July. Unless the league either steps in and decides to operate a Trenton franchise this season to save the schedule or a buyer is willing to take on the debt that the franchise has incurred, Sun National Bank Center just lost 36 dates and will become a virtual ghost town save for the ever popular circus and mediocre concerts it hosts.
It had been well known, at least privately, that the team had been up for sale for a while. But given that a schedule had already been released…it seemed there was hope that the small fanbase that actually did care about the team and looked past the poor on-ice product, ticket prices and the other littany of problems that affected the team…it seemed they’d bought themselves another season of pro hockey.
That schedule, unfortunately, was just another promise that wasn’t kept.
Ultimately, this sucks. There’s no other way to put it. For as easy as it was — and most times well-deserved — to rip the way things went down in Trenton, I will miss it. Everyone’s hoping for some sort of last minute fix, and that may very well happen. But if there’s anything I’ve learned over the past three seasons of covering professional hockey in Trenton…it’s that hoping for things to get better is something that will ultimately go unfulfilled. Optimism was always, always, always unrealistic. And even if a team does somehow come back…the dozens of people who somehow hadn’t been alienated over the years — the full season ticket holder base was rumored to be under 100 last season — are surely fed up by now.
Players, who were appreciative of the support they did get, often joked about the “green seats fan club.” Basically, that the place was empty every night. And until someone comes in and changes that, there isn’t a whole lot to be excited about right now.
It’s a sad, but inevitable day in Trenton.
Paint the town dead.
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com