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Why Josh Harris decided to own New Jersey Devils, and Lou Lamoriello’s future

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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Why did Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris decide to buy the New Jersey Devils with partner David Blitzer?

They both have ties to the Garden State. They both obviously have the finances to pull off the reported $320 million sale of the team – a figure NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hinted was speculative. Both wanted to own the Devils, beginning the ownership process months ago.

But in listening to their introductory press conference at Prudential Center on Thursday morning, one got the sense their ownership of the Devils speaks both to their drive for success and their more altruistic affinities.

In other words, there’s no denying the Devils are a successful NHL franchise in the arena, and that they play in a city that’s still struggling outside its walls.

“I love sports. I enjoy winning. I think this is an excellent platform to win. And I think the NHL is going to experience long-term growth, and I want to be a part of that,” said Harris.

“But I want to make the world a better place and help communities.”

The Devils haven’t always had the friendliest relationship with Newark, from disputes over money to the debt load the team carried from the arena investment to some (frankly overblown) safety concerns from fans who used to attend games at the Meadowlands but are hesitant about taking the train into the city.

Harris sounded as committed to making a difference in the community as he did maintaining the excellence on the ice. Call that lip service or sucking up to the locals if you’d like, but something sounded genuine about that sentiment.

Bettman pointed out that the Devils have already made a difference locally.

“I know there’s been a lot of commentary on the team and the building’s relationship with the city of Newark. There’s not doubt there have been what I would call some ‘commercial disputes’ with the city, which were disputes in good faith. But if you’re looking at the building and the team’s commitment, there’s a youth hockey program at East Side High School. There’s a youth hockey program in Newark. At least 70 percent of the employees at the building are from Essex County, many of them from Newark,” he said.

So that’s one aspect of Harris and Blitzer's -- are they reindeer? -- ownership of the team, after their purchase from Jeff Vanderbeek was approved by the NHL Board of Governors on Wednesday. What else did we learn about the Devils’ new owners?

The Lou Lamoriello Transition

The Devils bringing in someone to run the business side of the team while President/GM/Ruler of All He Surveys Lou Lamoriello focuses on the ice has always been a dicey proposition. Lou’s not one to cede control of anything.

But in Scott O’Neil, the Devils’ new CEO, the new owners have someone that Lamoriello knows from his time running Madison Square Garden. He’s comfortable with him. And it sounded like Lamoriello was open to having the new owners increase the team’s footprint among the fans and in the community while wanting to win “the right way” on the ice.

“Scott, I’ve known for over 10 years,” said Lamoriello. “I’ve always said there’s three criteria for an employee: Work ethic, honesty and integrity. He has that.”

Again, Lamoriello’s not always the easiest guy to work with. No one without peers ever is. But O’Neil is someone he respects. And keeping a happy Lamoriello means keeping Lamoriello around, which is essential to the franchise’s continued success.

The Sixers Are Not Moving

No idea how, why, when or who started the rumor that Harris’s purchase of the Devils would portend a Sixers’ move out of Philly, but he squashed it.

The Flyers Fans Might Be Pissed At Harris

The sexiest aspect of this sale: That a Philly guy just bailed out New Jersey’s hockey team.

So … awkward then?

Harris said his mom is from Philly and his father is from New Jersey. “I don’t see a lot of conflict,” he said. “I love hockey in New Jersey. I love the Devils. And I love the Sixers in basketball. It’s two separate situations. I appreciate … and that’s the way I look at it.”

Which is great and all until the first playoff home game in Philly between the Flyers and Devils with Harris as the owner.

The Devils Worshipers

The Devils have been unable to escape their empty seats over the years, and attendance was brought up several times during the presser. O’Neil spoke about the passionate fans that watch the team on television at home or at a bar but don’t come to the games. He specifically targeted former season ticket holders to come to Newark and “bring your friends.”

I’m sure they would … if they could afford it.

Look, the Devils draw well for the right opponents. In the lockout-shortended, Eastern Conference-only season, they sold out 22 of 24 home games. But it’s those Tuesday night vs. Edmonton games that draw flies, mostly because fans can’t justify the cost of tickets to that game when they’re only willing to ante up for the Flyers or Rangers visits.

According to the 2013 NHL Team Marketing Report, the Devils’ average ticket price is about $13 lower than the league average ($61.01) but their premium tickets average close to $30 more than the league average ($145.33). Premium tickets are defined as ones with “one added amenity,” like access to a special bar or restaurant. And the Prudential Center has plenty of those tickets going unsold, and you see them on TV every home game.

Steve Lepore quotes Harris as saying they’re willing to cut ticket prices. But remains to be seen.

Maybe the Devils should take a look at what moves on StubHub for weeknight games against non-division opponents, and adjust accordingly.

Finally, On Kovalchuk

Harris was asked about Ilya Kovalchuk leaving for Russia.

He didn’t have much to say about it.

“We believe in Lou and what he’s doing,” was the crux of it.

Which means he’s smart enough to not question Lamoriello’s hockey operations decisions in front of the man, or he’s actually pretty happy not to have that contract on the books any longer …

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