Monday, April 5, 2010

Tales From Prudential Center II

I know that hockey talk is a bizarre choice when I can be talking about Opening Day for my beloved Mets today, but it has occurred to me that if I simply post a chapter of my book every Monday, well, I'm likely to be tapped out of material within three years or so.

And we can't have that.

So I will try, on Mondays, as a bit of a temporary experiment, to write about other sporting experiences that won't necessarily make the book. Unless, of course, the Eagles and Redskins happen to make the most bizarre trade ever, in which case, I might get distracted. But that isn't happening today (though for the record I don't think either team wins the deal, but slight edge to Washington), so instead I'm going to regale with you my venture out to the Devils-Blackhawks game this past Friday night.

The peculiar thing about going to Devils games, is that the crowds are not always great. Perhaps this is skewed by the fact that my work schedule doesn't allow me many weekend nights off -- my Devils games often come on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the crowds are sparse -- but this was a different case. By luck of the schedule I was given the night off, but as the Devils, my lifelong favorite team, were facing the Blackhawks, a team which I have had a soft sport for ever since I worked for them in college, I would have made it a point to be at this particular showdown.

Remarkably, a number of other New Jerseyans did the same thing. In fact, the crowd was not only large, but also vocal, and you could sense it as you walked in. People were gathered all around the outside of the arena, crowds were drinking and kids were playing hockey in a makeshift rink in the plaza next to Prudential Center. It was an unusual, but welcome sight for a Devils fan always wary of his fan base's meager reputation.

Once inside the arena, not only was the crowd a sea of red jerseys -- no not because there were also Hawks fans -- but the chants and cheers were loud and in unison. For possibly the first time since watching the team at Brendan Byrne Arena, I didn't just feel like I was at a hockey game. I felt like I was at a Devils game.

On this particular night I had lucked into getting my company's suite tickets, which meant feeling like I was a big shot for the next two and a half hours. I waited for Nomaan, a cohort at the Daily Northwestern who is working in New York, in part of my desperate bid to convert more hockey fans. Nomaan, you see, grew up outside Chicago, and with the Blackhawks in the midst of a turnaround from their previous levels of mediocre, now was the time to strike. Fortunately, it just may be starting to work.

After coming through the turnstyles and finding that we had our own special entrance, we made our way up to the suite level, through the "Goal Bar" and to our box in the Devils attacking zone. I had been in a luxury box at Madison Square Garden, a sort of disappointing angle at which to sit, but being in a box at the Rock was a new experience, and the modern architecture shows. The views were remarkable, the seats roomy and comfortable and the design, you know, tasteful.

The only thing missing was food. I did happen to snag an order form that allows you to buy food for the entire box, but the prices seemed a bit on the robust side. I'm sure the $135 Crisp-Crusted Chicken Breast Strips and the $40 Home-Style Coleslaw are delicious, but that ran a bit steep for my wallet, even if it would be enough for the entire box. A $112 bottle of Glenlivet 12 also would be a bit of a setback.

Nomaan and I decided to spend the first intermission instead looking for food elsewhere, and while there was a little trafficked concession stand in the Goal Bar right near our suite, we decided to search around and see if there was free food to poach. Or at least fancier food. Luxury sections on the bottom bowl have access to All-You-Can-Eat bars, and we thought the suites, even more exclusive, might lead you to the same perks.

Evidently this is not true.

During our cruise around the suite level I did enjoy taking in the decor, which was covered with paintings of various major players and moments in Devils history. While we found no free food, we did happen upon the intermission report where Mr. Devil Ken Danyko was interviewing owner Jeff Vanderbeek. Eventually we happened upon a restaurant with a sprawling fancy buffet and a sign claiming it was reserved for a private function.

As we passed through with little attention being paid, it occurred to Nomaan and myself that we could probably start taking food and no one would notice. And so we did just that. We helped ourselves to potatoes au gratin, carved pork, brisket, stuffed sole and any other foods available. No one questioned it. We fit in. We were going to get a fancy free meal.

And then Nomaan noticed there was no silverware.

We saw an employee walking around, who looked conspicuously like a waitress, and asked her where we could get some, to which she said, "Your server should have given you place settings. Did your waitress not come by?"

"Um, no. We haven't seen a waitress yet?"

At this point she said to us, "You do know this buffet is $45 a plate, right?"

"No, we did not know that."

And then, she looked at us as if to say, 'Are you fucking stupid?' and told us, "You can't just come up here and take free food."

We sheepishly put our plates down and left only to hear that the second period was starting and we had missed our opportunity to eat without missing any of the game. I had barely eaten that day and the hunger was distracting me from the fact that we were actually seeing quite a phenomenal game between two potential Cup contenders. Martin Brodeur and Antti Niemi were both standing on their heads, while Ilya Kovalchuk's power-play goal provided the lead for the Devils and New Jersey and Chicago were so crisp in their play that the outing would be the first NHL game without a penalty being called in nine years.

After the second period, we finally got food at the nearby concession stand -- I got a cheeseburger and left the bun behind because it was passover -- and after a third period of more remarkable scoring chances and even more remarkable saves. With Brodeur on the cusp of the 109th shutout of his career, however, Chicago's Kris Versteeg would score an ugly goal to force overtime and, eventually, a shootout.

In my years of hockey games, I had never actually seen a shootout in person -- at least not as a fan. The last time I did see one was as an intern for the Hawks four years ago, and my memory is hazy. Shootouts are awfully exciting. Even more so when your team wins. Unfortunately, that wasn't exactly the case this time, but Nomaan did leave the arena quite satisfied.

Instead of sole possession of first place in the Atlantic, the Devils found themselves in a tie with Pittsburgh with just five games remaining, but it's ok. I'll survive. And if I'm lucky, I'll get to watch the Devils again from the same luxurious vantage point.

I wasn't used to walking out of the arena with so many people, nor was I used to doing so from the suite level, so I had significantly lost my bearings -- not a great combination when you're already disappointed about the outcome. But as Nomaan and I waded through the crowd to the exits, I did look around and happen to notice Millburn High School's jersey among the plethora of New Jersey High School hockey programs that get recognized around the arena. It was a different jersey from previous years and they had shuffled them around from the prior season, but it was still pretty cool to see the Blue "M" hanging on the wall.

Go Millers.

Nomaan asked me where my Millburn hockey jersey was. Alas, it's one of the few I don't own, and I disappointed him with the information that I did not, in fact, play hockey in high school. Frankly, I'm not sure I was in shape to play anything, but I did let him know that I was on the football team. Of course, telling people that might give them the impression that I was actually good. And that would be a bald lie.

Despite the loss, I couldn't complain about seeing a great game between two contenders. Given that the regular season is winding down and my life during the playoffs gets a little hectic, it may be a while before I'm back, though I obviously will look forward to it. Next time, however, I will figure out what to do for food beforehand.

Or at the very least, I'll try not to look like a fool in front of the Arena staff.

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