Garden State roots strengthen Jeff Vanderbeek's commitment to New Jersey
|Vanderbeek with fans at Newark's Penn Station. GETTY IMAGES
The chairman and managing partner of the Devils, Vanderbeek is in the midst of another long offseason. After seeing his team eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers, he has had to close the book on another promising year that fizzled too soon.
Amid the stack of paperwork at Vanderbeek’s corner office on this particular day were printouts of proposed artwork for the New Jersey Nets, who are slated to play the next two seasons in Newark before moving to Brooklyn. Vanderbeek will oversee several transitions before the fall, when the Devils, Nets and Seton Hall basketball will be back under one roof for the first time since 2007.
But first things first. Vanderbeek, a longtime Devils fan and season ticket holder who assumed his current role in 2004, admits that characterizing the 2009-10 season as a disappointment would be something of an understatement.
Backstopped by Martin Brodeur, who posted an NHL-best 45 wins, and led offensively by Zach Parise’s 38 goals and 82 points, the Devils captured their fourth Atlantic Division crown in five years. They enjoyed the best first half in franchise history, going 30-10-1 out of the gate, and finished with a record of 48-27-7 for their 12th season with at least 100 points (103).
They claimed the second seed in the East with a win over Buffalo on the last day of the regular season, drawing an opening-round matchup with the seventh-seeded Flyers. Philadelphia had taken five of six regular-season meetings from the Devils, who were looking to reach the second round for the first time in three years.
The Devils split the first two meetings at the Rock before dropping the final three of the series. They were blanked, 3-0, in Game 5, exiting the playoffs on home ice for the third consecutive year. That hasn’t sat well with Vanderbeek, a Warren resident who’s as passionate about the team as even its most ardent fan.
“I guess you start with the fact that you have high expectations of the team,” Vanderbeek says. “You try not to be unrealistic, but the fact is, this team did beat the defending champions [Pittsburgh Penguins] six times, played some good hockey, won the [William] Jennings Trophy for least goals against, had players like Parise score the tying goal in the Olympics gold medal game, added [Ilya] Kovalchuk, and won the Atlantic Division. So we had high expectations, not that we don’t always, but certainly this team followed suit.”
Salting the wound were the first-round departures of Washington, the President’s Trophy winner as the NHL’s top squad, and third-seeded Buffalo. Had the Devils gotten by the Flyers, the road to the Finals would have been paved by home ice advantage.
“It just adds to it, that’s all,” Vanderbeek says. “It’s a missed opportunity. It is disappointing, but in this business you can’t dwell on it. We have to get right back on the horse, learn from it, and we’re in the process of doing that.”
Such is life at the top. Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis watched his heavily-favored club dominate the regular season only to blow a 3-1 series lead to eighth-seeded Montreal. After dropping Game 7 at home, Leonsis described life as a sports owner as “humbling,” adding that it requires you to learn how to lose.
Vanderbeek says he took no comfort in the early dismissals of the other top seeds. The hardest part now is the wait. During his 24 years on Wall Street, there were daily opportunities to tally wins and losses. But success in pro sports is measured in seasons, and it will be months before the Devils are even back at the starting line of a new 82-game marathon.
“It’s all over quickly, and you have to do a lot of work even to get back to this point; to even try to taste it a year later.”
Driving Vanderbeek’s quest for success are his deep Garden State roots. Born in Somerville, he’s a lifelong New Jersey resident who attended high school at Bridgewater-Raritan and earned his undergraduate degree from Bloomfield College.
“This being ‘Jersey’s Team,’ matters to me. It’s a sense of pride. There’s the fact that it’s a new arena that we want to show off. I’d love to get the opportunity to show it off at least into the second round – of course, we want to go all the way.”
It’s a “big factor,” but not a “blind factor,” Vanderbeek reasons, adding: “It’s not just because I was born here.
He continues: “I believe in New Jersey. I believe it’s a great place to live. I believe that there are very prideful people here that can get behind the only team that has an ‘NJ’ on its chest; that is committed from A to Z in the state. I believe in the economic engine of the state.”
|Prudential Center is New Jersey's premier sports and entertainment destination, attracting such stars as Shaquille O'Neal, seen here with Vanderbeek and Devils legend Ken Daneyko. GETTY IMAGES
But the process of evaluating what to fix – and how to do it – will be Vanderbeek’s focus in the weeks ahead. There’s the matter of finding a coach to succeed Jacques Lemaire, who retired shortly after the Flyers series ended, closing out a 17-year coaching career. Decisions will have to be made on whether or not to re-sign Kovalchuk and defenseman Paul Martin, both of whom become unrestricted free agents on July 1.
The Devils acquired Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela in February, sending Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier, and a 2010 first-rounder to Atlanta. Kovalchuk performed as advertised, averaging a point per game with 10 goals and 17 assists in 27 appearances with New Jersey.
A two-time 50-goal scorer, Kovalchuk finished with 41 tallies overall, marking his sixth straight campaign with at least 40. It’s still too early to know what Kovalchuk’s future with the Devils will be.
“I think it is [early], for a lot of reasons,” Vanderbeek says. “He’s playing in the World Championship; we’re going through our post-mortem, if you will, for the season. We don’t even know where the salary cap’s going to end up for next year. For all of those reasons, it is premature. We’re certainly going to do what we can to sign Kovalchuk for next year, but there’s a lot of pieces to that puzzle.”
Vanderbeek will work alongside Devils President, CEO and General Manager Lou Lamoriello to determine the organization’s next steps. It helps to have someone with Lamoriello’s Hall of Fame résumé leading the way.
“As he always has, he’ll put forth his views,” Vanderbeek explains. “I’ll certainly sit down and talk to any prospective coaches if we get serious about a particular person or two. But Lou’s our hockey guy. His reputation is second to none and at the end of the day, I don’t see that changing.”
Offseasons invariably bring changes of some kind, whether a team wins it all or loses early. But following a third consecutive first-round loss, Vanderbeek is candid about wanting to get to the root of the problem.
“I don’t believe in coincidences. We’re, as an organization, really asking ourselves the incredibly hard questions many times over. If that leads to more change, so be it. I don’t have a crystal ball right now.”
The Devils’ abbreviated spring shouldn’t put a total damper on a regular season that was studded with successes, though. Local television ratings were up 48.3%, and among the NHL’s U.S. markets, the Devils’ ratings ranked seventh in average number of households.
Home sellouts nearly doubled, improving to 18 from the previous season’s 10. Then there were moments like March 17, when the team wore its original red and green colors for the first time since 1992 and completed a series sweep of Pittsburgh. Current plans are to have the team go retro once a season.
“Hockey is enjoying a nice surge here,” Vanderbeek points out. “Some would say from a low base, but you know what? This is now going on four or five years in a row. The Winter Classic was a home run. The Olympics mesmerized a lot of people and so far the playoffs are off to a great start.”
Would Vanderbeek like to see the Devils in a Winter Classic?
“Absolutely. No question about it. We’ve certainly had conversations with the League about that. They know where we stand. They know of our interest.”
In the more immediate future, fans can look forward to continued improvements in and around the Prudential Center, now in its third year. Development stalled during the economic downturn, but may be finally turning a corner.
Work is underway on a “burger and brew” eatery next to the Brick City Coffee Co., which opened last season. Two sports bars are planned for Edison Place across from the arena box office, and are expected to open during the upcoming season. Designs have been submitted for Triangle Park, which will be located across from the front of the arena on Mulberry Street. The park’s groundbreaking could happen as early as this fall.
Construction will begin on a Courtyard by Marriott on the corner of Broad and Lafayette streets following a groundbreaking targeted for Sept. 1.
“It’s probably a year and a half later than we would have thought, but our whole environment was thrown a huge curveball with the ‘Great Recession,’ as they’re calling it. It had a big impact on the ancillary development around the arena, really. That’s what suffered the most. Developers around the world, certainly around the country, New Jersey and Newark, took a step back, reassessed. We’re seeing some good signs that they’re willing to come back into the market now.”
The arrival of the Nets means more good things ahead. Including the NBA preseason, the move will bring more than 40 additional events to the arena, and a whole new subset of tri-state area sports fans will see Prudential Center for the first time. Vanderbeek says joint marketing strategies are in the works for Devils-Nets and Nets-Seton Hall ticket packages.
“One thing that we’ve seen from the beginning, right up to this day, is that all you have to do is come here once. You see this place, and you see how beautiful it is, get a sense of the surrounding area: It’s easy to get in, easy to get out, and you just keep coming back.”
Wider exposure for amenities like the arena’s luxury and bunker suites are just the beginning of what Vanderbeek hopes will make a big impression on the area's NBA fans.
“Having the Nets will allow for three hundred, four hundred, five hundred thousand people to come in here, and a large part of that will come in for the first time and will see how beautiful it is,” he says. “Certainly, the economics of sponsorships, concessions, suite sales, premium seating, stands on its own. But the visibility of the place is really the number one positive.”
Also on the horizon this summer are what Vanderbeek compared to town hall meetings, during which he hopes to meet groups of fans for open discussions about what’s ahead for the team, the arena, and Newark. Though still in the planning stage, Vanderbeek envisions hosting the events at the Rock or hitting the road to bring the meetings to the fans.
“We can do a little more of an informal give and take to see if we can’t get some of the fans view as far as how to get better.”
And all indications are that the fanbase is growing as the team reaps the rewards of winning three Stanley Cups in nine seasons from 1995 to 2003.
“We’re just starting to hit our stride with that 25-year-old that grew up with the Devils and are hitting that age where they can actually afford to buy Devils tickets. Our future is bright in that regard. Certainly, being New Jersey’s team is a special thing for us.”
Even more special would be seeing the Devils reach hockey’s summit once again.
“We made the playoffs for 19 of 20 seasons, we set a record for the longest number of years over .500 of any active team in the four leagues, so it’s 132 teams,” Vanderbeek says. “That doesn’t come by accident. We’re going to continue to do whatever it takes to make this team the best it can be with the goal to win the Stanley Cup. If you come see us, that’s what you’re going to see.
“And if you haven’t seen what I think is the most beautiful arena in the world, you need to come see it.”