With the news last week that the building now known as Izod Center (but better known to Devils fans as the Brendan Byrne arena or the CAA) was finally going to close its doors in a matter of weeks and allow most of their events to go to the Prudential Center in Newark, that piece of Devils history will now be a part of history. Sure it’s nicer to be in a new building with more amenities in and around the arena and honestly I’ve been to the Rock a lot more than I was ever at CAA so on the one hand I identify more with the new building…particularly after the ’12 playoff run christened it around years of playoff dissapointments and not even getting there.
Still, there’s always a charm around the first time for everything. A lot of firsts took place for me as a hockey fan at the CAA (I remember the building being Brendan Byrne watching the Devils’ ’94-95 playoff runs on TV but by the time I started going to games it had changed its name to the Continental Airlines arena so I’ll just go by the CAA achronym here). My first game attended was during the ’96-97 season as a teenager sitting in my dad’s old boss’s seats in section 119 where I would sporadically attend games for the next few years. The only reason I remember the particular game is because I still have all my ticket stubs saved from games attended, or at least the ones that aren’t paper/e-mail, and because it happened to be an unusual game against the Ducks where Mike Dunham started but after the Ducks took a 2-0 lead, Dunham was pulled for Martin Brodeur and the Devils came back to win 5-3.
My first playoff game live was also a memorable one, I don’t even need a ticket stub to remember it – the so-called ‘six shot’ game against Toronto in 2000 where the Devils clinched the series with a historic defensive performance in Game 6. Sadly my second playoff game that year wasn’t as scintillating, being the Game 4 loss to the Flyers in the Conference Finals. I started going to games by myself here and there after that though I didn’t become a full season ticket holder until after the season-long lockout ironically enough. Still, the 2003 playoff run was particularly special for me since I was at most of the games during the last two series – Games 4 and 6 against Ottawa, and Games 1, 5 and 7 against the Ducks. Even sick with the flu on the day of Game 7 there was no way I was going to miss a potentially once-in-a-lifetime game so I took some antibiotics and got through the game on adrenaline. Obviously winning a Stanley Cup puts that at the very top of my list of most memorable moments at the CAA. I remember hearing the roar when the scratches were announced and long-time Devil Ken Daneyko was not among them, deep in my soul I felt everything was going to be fine after that. Though Kenny was more of an inspirational figure that night (in what turned out to be the final game of his 21-year career) playing just twelve minutes, it was still a rallying point for the crowd and the team, and the last of a season’s worth of inspired moves by coach Pat Burns.
Of course the memories at the CAA were more than just merely big games. When you talk about the game experience, there was tailgaiting (though I was seldom part of it), and there was the walk down the so-called cow tunnel before and after games from the arena to the parking lots near Giants Stadium. Mostly on a lot of cold nights but during playoff games those walks could be fun with the tunnel full of people slamming on the walls screaming ‘Let’s Go Devils!’ Also there was the time spent with friends at and after games – Applebees on route 46 was a popular destination for the group I went with back then, particularly during the final two seasons at CAA when I went to 20+ games. I also met my current best friend at a Devils game through someone who was a co-worker long ago. Not that everything about the CAA makes me nostalgic. I certainly don’t miss the cramped concourses, the super-long bathroom lines or the maze of parking lots you had to get detoured around to get out of the buliding. Nor do I miss the sudden shift across four lanes I had to make coming from route 3 to get to the arena, only having half a mile to do it, frequently in traffic. During the team’s first two years in Newark I reveled in taking the train and not having to worry about driving headaches, before I realized how easy it actually was driving in and out of Newark – not to mention less time-consuming than waiting for trains.
Although the shadow of the building has hung around like an eyesore with the new Izod name since the Devils moved out after the 2006-07 season, it’s more or less been gone for me since then. My last time setting foot the building as it turned out was for a playoff loss to Tampa Bay in the first round that year. I’ve only been to the Meadowlands itself twice since then, once for a Springsteen concert and the other time to see the Jets play at MetLife (a win over the Bills last year). I could bother going through all my ticket stubs and creating a top ten list of games attended but honestly it seems like too many memories to sort through.
There was the game against the Bruins which was one of the first I went to in the late ’90’s where Brodeur got a shutout and the Bruins coach had some nice words to say about Marty after the game – something to the effect of ‘we played well but Mr. Brodeur refused to allow anything’. That coach’s name was Pat Burns. Obviously the aformentioned six-shot game in 2000 and Cup win in 2003. Our banner raising the next year and the retirement of Scott Stevens and Daneyko’s jerseys. Beating the Rangers in the playoffs in 2006 finally, with a power play bonanza in Game 1 and the John Madden ‘hair trick’ in Game 2 – a hat trick that prompted someone without a hat to throw their toupee onto the ice. Other goofy games like the home opener against Toronto (I believe it was ’06-07) where we came back from 6-3 down to win in a shootout, back in the days where we actually won shootouts, and the home finale that same season where the Devils had already clinched the division and were playing the Islanders who needed a win to make the playoffs. Many Devil fans actually wanted the Isles to win since it would have eliminated the then-hated Leafs. After falling behind 2-0 it looked as if the Devils were going to troll the world with two late goals to tie the game, but the Isles got their win in the shootout.
Everyone has their favorite memories of the CAA I’m sure and this blog was purely about mine, I didn’t mention any of the games I was not at like the ’94-95 playoff games, or most of the ’00-01 games for that matter. There was also the Grant Marshall triple-OT series winner against Tampa Bay in 2003, and the Jamie Langenbrunner double-OT winner in Game 2 against Ottawa in 2007 which turned out to be our final win in East Rutherford after we lost that second-round series in five games. For the older crowd there were plenty of team firsts too, from first win to first playoff berth and everything in between including the so-called Mickey Mouse game where the Devils played an inspired game against the then-mighty Oilers after being disrepected by icon Wayne Gretzky in a memorable way in 1983. There was the ‘334 club’ game where a paralyzing snowstorm prevented all but 334 diehards from showing up at a 1987 game against Calgary (a 7-5 Devils win) and the doughnut-gate game during the Devils first playoff run in 1988 where then-coach Jim Schonfeld told referee Don Koharski to ‘have another doughnut, you fat pig!’ leading to the coach’s suspension and an appeal that led to a ref boycott of Game 4. And the CAA/Byrne arena wasn’t home to hockey alone…the NBA was there with the Nets and the NCAA tournament has played plenty of games there as well. I’ve been to one Nets game total though – and when I was a kid at that, and I only went to the tournament a few years back when it was at Newark so I don’t want to do basketball any injustice, but clearly the building was identified with its most successful tenant and the one who was among hockey’s titans for a decade – the New Jersey Devils.