An Empty Feeling

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

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51 Responses to “An Empty Feeling”

  1. trentondevilsfan Says:

    Paint the town dead indeed. Bummer about the Phantoms.

    Still think this is a strong hockey market for a team that knows what it’s doing.

    They’re guaranteed to burn Albany too because Chrislam is still spouting the ‘we worry about the people here, not the ones who aren’t’ canard. That may work for their beloved Canadians, but when the people who aren’t outnumber those who are by 4 to 1….no.

    Especially since you basically just told someone on the fence to not bother, ’cause you don’t care if they show up or not.

  2. feistigirl Says:

    First time post for me, follower for the last 3 years of a great blog. Feel bad for all the staff in the office and at the arena who are now out of jobs with families to support. Rumors eventualy come true. The Devils ownership do not care about people or respect. Look what they have done with the NHL team in the last 2 years.

  3. Benni Hanna Says:

    Mike,

    Any plans for a follow-up article with anyone from either Trenton or NJD organization?

    Was shocked to hear that season ticket base was less than 100. Makes me one of the few and proud, I guess. Still, can’t quite figure out how they could announce official attendance at 1,500 in the ECHL game reports. This was done religiously for those games where you could count the number of people in certain sections on two hands.

  4. trentondevilsfan Says:

    That counts tickets given away but not used. It should rightly be called “tickets dispersed” or something. It happens everywhere, BTW, to one extent or another.

  5. chiarams Says:

    Telling it like it is to the bitter end. Thanks for this great summary of the good and bad of what Trenton Devils hockey was all about.

    Terrifying to think they had under 100 full STH at the end, but given the weeknight crowds last season I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise.

  6. JB Says:

    I’d be interested to know why attendance was falling every season even before the Devils purchased the franchise. Was it the lack of other things to do around the arena? Trenton’s negative reputation? Poor marketing under the Berman Family regime?

    Yes, the Devils took a patient with the flu and killed it. But the patient still had the flu to begin with.

  7. Tom Says:

    Mike

    Would be nice if you could grab Phil Miller of the MCIA for a word here>>>> it would seem like they could pull the rabbit out of the hat for us all. Would love to hear his words on the future…

    Tom

  8. Benni Hanna Says:

    JB,

    Was wondering the same thing. I would bet the economy played a role as it was starting to sink around then. Probably also some of the other things you pointed out as well. With a more aggressive and fan-friendly owner I’m sure attendance would’ve rebounded these last few years.

    What really puzzled me was the lack of in-game promotion. Never once, apart from the Sunday 4/$44 specials, did I ever hear an announcement about the next game. If you’re not a season ticket holder wouldn’t that be of interest, especially if you happened to take in a game with a good crowd, atmosphere, etc? Just classic ineptitude.

    Remember PA guy? I had seats behind him and while he was a bit sophomoric at times, I enjoyed how he interacted with the fans behind him. Then, they made him toss the jersey and start wearing a suit and tie. Took all of the fun out of it and was a telling comment on how Lou and his unqualified kid were out of touch.

  9. Mike M Says:

    Mike…I enjoyed the blog these past few years. Looks like it has opened a few extra doors for you.

    I’m not a Trenton local, but traveled the extra distance a few times a year. For the kids, the close up experience was fantastic.

    Count me among those who was baffled on how the operation was run, and I’m a Devils fan. Hope the market can regroup and relaunch soon.

  10. trentondevilsfan Says:

    Well, IMO, attendance dipped every year a little as the ‘newness’ wore off. I don’t have the numbers in front of me but I don’t think the rate of decline was that steep until the investment ceased after the KC win.

    When the Devils came in I think people were receptive to new ownership after the Coach 280 debacle and the obvious throttling down of marketing starting the offseason of the KC win. At that point I think it was perfectly possible to stem the tide if they had upped the budget and not changed the name. At that time the championship still had some cachet and if they upped the investment and upped the fun factor of the games it could’ve been different. They totally didn’t get that a large percentage of those that came didn’t really care about the result as much as folks posting on this blog did. They wanted to be entertained. And when you could map out the night’s festivities – now it’s T shirt toss time, now it’s empty pizza box time, now it’s shuffle puck (with the same result every time)….yawn. Mites on Ice and figure skaters are great fun for the friends and families involved; otherwise…eh. Broomball…well I could never figure that one out. The money machine disappeared. The hot tub disappeared. Player intros were sub par and it was embarrassing when a guy had been on the team a month and there was no picture. Giveaways became nonexistent.

    They simply didn’t get that people go to minor league hockey teams to be entertained; and limiting that to watching mediocre hockey and a hard working mascot & emcee wasn’t going to cut it.

  11. Shtikl Says:

    It’s almost a shame the Devils couldn’t get the ECHL to buy into the idea of having the team play in the AmeriHealth Pavilion up in Newark. Don’t bother to sell tickets, don’t worry about promoting the minor league team, don’t even bother inviting the visiting team’s fans, just use the game for player development. Maybe the AHL will be more receptive to the idea.

    So it sounds like a lot of youse Trenton fans will be picking up Princeton hockey to replace the T-Devils, yes? Mike, any chance you’ll be going along?

  12. trentondevilsfan Says:

    I loved PA Guy. he’s now doing the Steel games.

  13. trentondevilsfan Says:

    Hey folks, Trenton has a junior team. News to me!

    http://www.trentonhabs.com/

  14. Marc Gulli Says:

    Any news yet??? I’m hoping Trenton gets a ECHL team by the start of the 2011-2012. I truly believe something is going on.

  15. NJ Style Shutdown… « Thoughts Inside The Box Says:

    [...] good perspective on how the T-Devils basically ceased to exist, check out Mike Ashmore’s blog post from Inside the Trenton [...]

  16. Titans04 Says:

    I have the numbers put together somewhere but the jist of it is they at a minimum were at league average when the Devils took over. Across the board most teams but certainly not all have had a decline in attendance over the years. Since the Devils came to town the fall off has been drastically worse hovering around half the league average the last 2 years. Beleive Lowell was consistantly at half the league average and Albany was close to it last year and that was including atleast one 5k game in ac which was a Philly crowd.

  17. trentondevilsfan Says:

    Editorial in today’s Times pushes for the Phantoms. Article in same paper has Philly brass saying ‘Nope, sorry, we’ve committed to Allentown’.

    I’m actually pretty confident we’ll get another team; moreso than if the Devils did all the right marketing things and it still failed. In that case it would be easier to surmise the market wasn’t interested in hockey. As it stands, when the club literally says they’re not concerned with the thousands of local hockey fans that aren’t in the building…someone that is will sooner or later take another shot; probably sooner IMO.

  18. Mike M Says:

    Geographically could make some sense on the AHL map too nevermind who the affiliate would be.

  19. Shtikl Says:

    Oh YEAH! :) Support the Juniors team! :) The little kids can still look up to them as heroes, and 100 more fans in the stands will really make a difference to them! Just don’t expect the high caliber of officiating you’ve been taking for granted in the ECHL. :P

  20. Benni Hanna Says:

    Contrast the T-Devils pathetic and almost non-existent marketing efforts with those of Stockton which had the 2nd highest attendance this year. The difference is startling.

    http://echl.com/stockton-unveils-theme-for-2011-12-season-p171625

  21. JB Says:

    Heck, Benni, contrast it with the Trenton Thunder, whose average attendance this season (just under 5,500) is almost 87% of Waterfront Park’s capacity. And on summer Friday and Saturday nights, it is almost always standing room only.

  22. Titans04 Says:

    The more I try to put aside my wishful thinking I keep coming back to who in their right mind would want to come in here and try and pickup the pieces especially in the echl where by and large most teams are on the down fall. The league is always in flux and now more than ever.

    On the AHL side I don’t really see where Trenton fits into the AHL foot print either unless it was the Phantoms and that would only be the tie into the big club, but even then who knows how long they’ll be link, I mean there are never guarantees. Otherwise it seems to me that outside of BP there aren’t too many teams real close, to me anyway not enough for somebody to say the travel won’t be bad. Again though I maybe misreading the AHL landscape. WB and Hershey are doing well. Springfield???

    In an effort to be accurate Albany did average more than half the league average

    5,380 – 3114

    Albany averaged 3751 the prior year.

  23. chiarams Says:

    Springfield is holding on for dear life mainly because it’s the league headquarters. Plus as part of the NE cartel, their travel is pretty much nill. I seem to remember an article about the fact that they went 3 or 4 months without having to spend a night in a hotel.

    Sidenote – the Trenton Devils Facebook page has already been taken down. That’s some serious efficiency.

  24. trentondevilsfan Says:

    They’ve always been efficient in tear downs.

    Turned this up regarding the Trenton Habs…

    http://ijhl.us/news2.php?news_id=418864

    Seriously going to look into this.

  25. Shtikl Says:

    I don’t see a link to buy tickets though, do you?

  26. trentondevilsfan Says:

    Nope, but I plan on contacting them about it…

  27. Titans04 Says:

    ok why do I feel like I just woke up on another planet, wth is going on here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trenton_Habs and how didn’t any of us have any idea they existed???

  28. Matt Conti Says:

    I had a lot of fun with this organization, from traveling on road trips, meeting the members of the booster club, to playing in a couple of games. But after NJ took the reigns, the atmosphere in the locker room certainly changed. It seemed like the team felt it was always ‘on double secret probation’. I don’t know……but it was definitely a different feel. Hockey will come back to Trenton. I don’t doubt that for a second.

  29. trentondevilsfan Says:

    Trenton Habs was brought up on the njdevs board when alternatives were being talked about. Totally news to me!

  30. Titans04 Says:

    Thanks for the insight Matt, I often wonder what the impact was on the players mindset when playing in a morgue like setting. Also knowing that in all reality they were never legitimately competing for a championship and winning was not a priority.

    So the habs played in SUNBC last season?? Who does that make any business sense? Regardless if they’re there were there.

  31. trentondevilsfan Says:

    They have their schedule on the website but you have to dig a bit, its a Google calendar. Lotsa 2:30 Sunday games, some 9pm Saturdays which I thought interesting. Totally amazed this went under our collective radar, LOL. They have a Facebook page as Trenton habs Jr hockey. Seems Bobby Sanguinetty came through the program…..

    Definitely appreciate the insight Matt…

  32. Shtikl Says:

    Hmm… Makes sense that they don’t advertise, actually. The youngsters need a whole lot more privacy and they need a boatload more affirmative support than the grizzled old warriors who came through Trenton. Prob’ly safer if they /don’t/ make it easy for random people to come watch.

  33. Benni Hanna Says:

    Here’s an interesting thought that was passed along to me by the dreaded “someone who Knows”…..

    One of the reasons for deep-sixing Trenton is to help Louie save face in light of the Kovalchuk and Rolston signings. With the need to cut/trade/buyout players in order to get Parise and others signed it was too much for Louie to bear that in addition to this the or-gan-I-za-tion would also need to continue to eat losses in Trenton.

    In short, the lesser of two evils since Louie couldn’t buy more time to take his rightful medicine on both fronts.

  34. Titans04 Says:

    There are quite a few smaller rinks that would make more sense though. I’m sure I’m missing something.

  35. Shtikl Says:

    :P Maybe the T-Devils were sacrificed so Killer and Deano can take over as Coach and A-coach up in Newark. :P

  36. DevilDawg Says:

    I just got even sadder, I can see our flag on Mike’s picture at the top of the article … :(

  37. Titans04 Says:

    TDF’s section looks packed compared to the rest. Really not much else needs to be said the picture really does say it all. Way too many nights with that “crowd”.

  38. trentondevilsfan Says:

    We sure had some die hards. I just realized I had a FB message from someone at the Times seeking comment for an article three days ago. Oops. Dammit.

    Why would these Junior kids be different from ones in Canada that not only play in front of big crowds but on tv?

  39. Shtikl Says:

    It’ll be different for starters just because it’s not Canada, and it’s not Major Juniors. Way less money involved.

    I think the NAHL and USHL, the major top tier US junior leagues, might get some media attention. But below that level, you have to really love hockey — or have a kid playing youth hockey — just to hear about the teams at all. You get your news from the team website, so you can forget about the kind of insider info we’ve come to take for granted because Ashmore fed it to us on this blog.

    But hey, it’s hockey. It’s all good. I see the other half of the IJHL’s Super Elite division includes the New England Stars, which claims to be Junior A level. Maybe some of youse will make the trip up to Tyngsboro, but if you do, be warned: that rink doesn’t sell beer. :P

  40. Langhorne Devil Says:

    Is that a heartbeat?????

    ——————————————————-

    http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=568949

    Flyers returning to Trenton?When the Trenton Titans debuted in the ECHL in 1999, it gave the Philadelphia Flyers another close location for them to send their prospects. The Sun National Bank Center — then known as the Sovereign Bank Arena — was located about a 45-minute drive from the Flyers’ home in South Philadelphia.

    For most of the next nine seasons, the Flyers would send a few prospects there each season. However, when New Jersey Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek bought the team in 2007 and re-named the team the Trenton Devils, the Flyers found a new ECHL affiliate in 2008.

    With the recent announcement that the Trenton Devils were suspending operations, however, the door became open for the Flyers to return to town, if the league is able to find new ownership in time to field a team for the 2011-12 season.

    “If there were new ownership in Trenton — and I know the league is working very hard to put that together so the team can play next season — we would definitely discuss an affiliation,” Flyers president Peter Luukko said. “I know (ECHL commissioner) Brian McKenna is trying to put something together. We’re talking to him. We told him we’d be available to talk to anybody about how we’d help them.”

    Adding to the Flyers’ interest is the fact that Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of Comcast-Spectacor, the company that owns the Flyers, manages the Sun National Bank Center.

    “Because we manage the building, we’d do anything we could to help promote the team and do a lot of cross-promotion between the Flyers and that (ownership group) and the Trenton team,” Luukko said. “We would be very supportive of a team in Trenton.”

    Luukko added that Comcast-Spectacor has no interest in owning any Trenton ECHL team

  41. JB Says:

    Even if they can find a new owner for an ECHL team, it’s going to be VERY difficult, if not impossible, for it to be ready in time for next season. Opening night is in Mid-October. The new owner would have only 3 months to hire coaches, hire front office staff, sign enough players to fill a team (minus the handful of prospects an affiliate would send), secure sponsorships, sell advertising and tickets and do the other things necessary to have the team ready to go by opening night.

    As tough as it would be for there to be no hockey in Trenton this winter, it would be worse long term for a new owner to do a rush job, screw things up and tank the franchise again. What owner would want to come into a market where TWO minor league ice hockey teams have failed?

    Better for them to find an owner, then have that owner take the next season to make sure everything is in place and ready and start up again in 2012-13.

  42. Langhorne Devil Says:

    Reading the article though it seems to imply breaks could be given on lease of stadium..

    I agree a rush job could be a disaster. Although im sure if the flyers are “helping” they could have coaches etc on a plate for a willing owner.

  43. Titans04 Says:

    How ironic would it be if the Flyers played an active roll in Trenton. Not that the Devils would notice. If the Flyers made a minimum effort to associate with the team they would more than likely outdraw the dismal numbers we’ve seen. Not sure what the magic date is for it to be too late, probably pretty damn close to it. It would depend on the commitment from above when it comes to helping fill out the roster. Probably depends on the coach and their ties to bring in players. Front office staff as others have said were in place for the most part.

    Nice to see what Luuko said even if it may not lead to anything.

  44. Shtikl Says:

    Sounds like wild optimisim. But if the Flyers want to help bring a team back to Trenton, more power to ‘em!

  45. chiarams Says:

    Agreed with the consensus here. As nice as it would be to get a team in Trenton for this season (I’d be there opening night alongside the lot of you), the risk of completely torching the market permanently is too high.

    Let the 11-12 season start, announce in October/November that Trenton will be back for the 12-13 season, and take 10 months to build the kind of excitement that is needed to get crowds of 4-5,000 back into the arena regularly.

    I for one will happily live up to my word that I would return to the building once the Devils were out of the picture.

  46. trentondevilsfan Says:

    Very interesting there. It can be done in time for this year, but done right? Too many things have to fall into place for it not to be a disaster. With a full year to get it together and reintroduce the franchise, they can do something special.

  47. chiarams Says:

    I wasn’t in Central Jersey the first year of the Titans, but didn’t they have a full year (maybe longer?) to sell tickets and get the name out in the area as the arena was being finished?

  48. thunderbaseball Says:

    To answer a question posed here, I don’t really have any plans on following up any further unless events warrant…

    Also, unless the league can step in and operate a Trenton franchise in 2011-12, I don’t see any way where it’s successful there this season…2012-13? Sure. But it’s way too soon to get things going right.

  49. φωτοβολταικά συμβουλές Says:

    φωτοβολταικά συμβουλές…

    [...]An Empty Feeling « Inside The Trenton Devils with Mike Ashmore[...]…

  50. converse Says:

    I agree a rush job could be a disaster. Although im sure if the flyers are “helping” they could have coaches etc on a plate for a willing owner.

  51. to chuc su kien Says:

    great blog. I hope to see more articles in future lai.I such a lot certainly will make Certain to don? t put out of your mind this web site and give it a glance regularly.

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