What it’s like to watch a New Jersey Devils hockey game in 2021
I’ve never been happier driving through downtown Newark, New Jersey and watching a New Jersey Devils game than last week.
For the first time in a year, the doors of the Prudential Center were open to fans to see the New Jersey Devils action live. A lot had changed, but a lot had also stayed the same.
Following an announcement a few weeks ago, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that athletic stadiums can allow 10% fan capacity. This meant that the Prudential Center could get about 1,500 depraved hockey fans through its doors.
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 City announced the fans’ return, it was only a matter of time before their compatriot across the Hudson River followed suit.
I was one of 1,500 hockey fans there to watch the New Jersey Devils take on the New York Islanders last week. The Devils haven’t played well, but let me tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see them lose. Here’s what the experience looked like.
Before entering the arena
The first thing I noticed was the parking situation. While each arena is different, Prudential Center has its own parking lot as well as various other independent courts surrounding it. As I made my way to the game, most of these little prizes were closed. Of course, with only 10 percent of a normal crowd, there was much less demand for parking. The small lots directly in front of the arena were open. I ended up parking my car right across the street for $ 20.
As part of the Prudential Center’s strategy to divide the crowds, fans were given a certain location and time to enter on their ticket. Prudential Center has two separate entrances called “towers”, so fans have been assigned one of the two, along with an entry time. Entry time was either 6:00 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. for the 7:00 a.m. game. I arrived at my assigned entrance quite late, around 6:45 am. Yet I was in the arena, in my seat, beer in hand, as the puck fell.
Enter the arena
Unlike New York, New Jersey does not require a negative COVID test to enter. Fans are not allowed to bring bags of any kind, even women’s handbags, which was a change from last season. The entry process was normal, like going through a metal detector, but with the added temperature control. As long as you didn’t bring bags and show up at the correct ‘tower’ entrance location, getting in was pretty easy. Employees were advising people to make sure they were at the correct entry point as stated on their ticket.
Most of the arena’s concession stands have been closed. When I say “most” I mean around 60 percent. This includes both the larger food stalls and the smaller concession carts. Enough were open to handle the crowds though. Remember, only 10 percent of a normal crowd was there that night. A food stand and a beer stand, two separate things, were open right next to my seats at level 100. It was very convenient for me so I didn’t go looking for anything else in terms of food or drinks. .
Many stadiums these days use “contactless payments”, which means only cards and no cash. Prudential Center, at least the booths I’ve been to personally, accepted cash. This was a nice surprise, as I’m used to paying cash (ask any Italian in New Jersey and they’re more likely to pay with a rubber band full of cash in their pocket than a card credit). typical precautions you would see, such as markers on the ground to keep distance as well as
There was plexiglass separating the customers from the cashiers, and another added precaution was that instead of being served in a tray, the food was put back into a paper bag. Condiment stations were also non-existent. If you wanted salt, pepper, ketchup, etc., you were given individual sachets.
Even though I saw a lot of food stalls closed, all the gift shops I passed were open. Well, at least in all the gift shops in the arena. Didn’t get a chance to walk past the main Devils Den team store which has entrances inside and outside the arena. All the gift shops had security guards and ushers who counted and maintained capacity limits.
There were a lot of different things about going to a New Jersey Devils game in 2021.
Let’s talk about masks
As part of their reopening, masks were mandatory. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Masks were mandatory unless you were actively eating or drinking in your seat. What I found was that the staff were quite forgiving, at least to me, as long as I was “actively eating or drinking”. For example, when I walked around the lobby with my beer on, as long as I was actually drinking, I could take off my mask.
For the record, I know a few fans of the games who have said that they have had different experiences. Some people have said that the mask rule is applied too harshly. For example, they were told to put on their masks between bites of food. Others said the rules were too lenient as they saw people without masks while watching the game without eating or drinking.
From there I knew a bunch of people who were also attending the game and we wanted to meet during the intermissions. Some of us were worried if we didn’t get together (okay, there were only ten of us, but still) wouldn’t be allowed. In the end, that was not a problem at all. Although the seats were spaced out in the actual arena, fans were free to mingle in the halls. Like I said a million times before, remember, there was only 10 percent of a normal crowd there. It wasn’t too crowded to begin with, so a few friends who did meet were no problem.
The in-game experience
Let me define “game experience” as anything that happens during the game that is not the real game of hockey. For example, intermission animations, fan contests, t-shirt throws, 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 set up a POV video feed to show on the jumbo tron.
As for the competitions, they were held virtually. The New Jersey Devils allow home fans to have what is called a “second screen experience” to watch the game from home from a stadium-based perspective, as opposed to televised broadcast. It was the fans watching from home who were chosen to participate in the contests and giveaways in the arena. No face-to-face competition has taken place.
Much like a normal game, they had the usual jumbotron fan moments. The Devils still had their promotion team in the arena, called the “Woo Crew” due to the hype video of Rick Flair playing the arena, dancing down the aisles. While I haven’t seen mascot NJ Devil pose for photos and interact with fans, he did participate in his normal jumbotron shennaigans.
A pleasant surprise was to see Dancing Earl, a usher from the Prudential Center usually featured on the jumbotron, back in action. There were no t-shirt throws or promotional giveaways. Fans who entered the virtual contests from home received prizes.
Those giant tarps you see on TV during games were still there. On one side of the ice, more precisely the side of the ice towards which the television cameras are directed, they have remained perfectly intact. On the other side, they’ve been rolled up a bit to allow seating in the back rows. No one’s seats were anywhere near the ice.
I sat in the 100 tiers, just above the lower seat bowl. The lower bowl and 100 tier seats were the only tiers used. The upper seating deck, level 200, was completely unused.
Seats were sold in sets of two or four. In my row, there was over six feet between me and the parties to my left and right. While no one was seated directly in front of me in the next row, people were seated in the next row, but in front of the seats left empty between me and the people in my row. Each row was taken, but the fans were distributed in an almost checkerboard pattern. The cardboard cutouts that were in the Prudential Center during the fanless era have been distributed among the remaining seats. I was seated in front of three different cuts of Travis Zajac.
Leave the arena
As the game ended, the announcer asked fans to stay in their seats until their section was called out. Obviously, this was an attempt to disperse the crowds leaving the arena, but it took me by surprise. As time passed in an apparent defeat for the Devils (they lost to the Islanders 2-1, but were down 2-0 in the dying minutes of the game), a few fans started heading for the exits.
At the official end of the game, the public address announcer made the same announcement again so that fans would wait in their place until they were called out. Instead, all the fans stood up and started to leave at the same time. Remember though, that was 10 percent of a normal crowd, so it’s not like a normal night when 15,000 fans were flocking to the exits.
Reason to be optimistic
As I was leaving I heard someone say they didn’t care so much the Devils lost because they were just happy to be back. The person they were with responded with something like, “It wasn’t a New Jersey Devils game, it was back to normal.” This return to normalcy was much needed and welcome. Every arena worker I saw was filled with enthusiasm and optimism. It was a day fans had been waiting for over a year. As one fan’s panel said, which ended up on the jumbotron, it was great to be back “home sweet home”.