By Peter Schwartz
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A preseason opener isn’t usually that eye-opening, but the New Jersey Devils’ 2-1 victory over the Rangers on September 16 was very telling in the eyes of one of the team’s new front office executives.

The excitement really had nothing to do with the game itself, but what happened after the final horn had blown.

“I was walking around the building after the game,” recalled new Devils CEO Scott O’Neil during an exclusive one-on-one with “I walked towards our main tower and the employees started a ‘Let’s go Devils!’ chant. These are the workers. I thought, ‘Man oh man this is it … this is New Jersey Devils hockey.’ ”

O’Neil looked on as fans were high-fiving the ushers on the way out. And this was a preseason game!

O’Neil, the former president of Madison Square Garden Sports, was brought in by the Devils’ new ownership group led by Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris and fellow equities investor David Blitzer.

The sale of the team was finalized August 15, 2013, at a price tag of $320 million.

Devils fans that had to hear media reports about the team’s financial problems had two reasons to smile. First, the franchise was in good hands with new owners. Second, the hockey team remained in the good hands of president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.

“Despite some of the unsettling nature of some of the reports in the media, I think that the base was in the ‘In Lou we trust’ mentality and they felt secure,” said O’Neil, who has been impressed with the Devils faithful.

“This is a loud and proud group,” he said. “This is not a fan base of wallflowers. They get after it and are so passionate.”

On the ice, the 2013-14 campaign was not up to the Devils’ standards. A second straight season out of the playoffs is certainly cause for some concern, but the franchise as a whole is heading in the right direction.

The new ownership and management used the season to evaluate the organization top to bottom and to examine the market that supports the team.

“It’s been an incredible learning experience,” said O’Neil, who also serves as the CEO for Prudential Center and the 76ers. “Anytime you go into an organization for the first time, you spend most of the time asking questions and listening, learning and observing.”

Fans play street hockey outside Prudential Center on October 4, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Fans play street hockey outside Prudential Center on October 4, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The group saw what they expected, and that’s a market with tremendous demographics, 21 Fortune 500 companies and a passionate fan base.

All of this was in New Jersey, the second-wealthiest state in the country.

“Everything that we loved about the Devils while we were looking into the business all proved out to be true, which is terrific,” O’Neil said. “I don’t think that there were many surprises, which I think is really positive.”

What O’Neil has also found is that the New Jersey market is a lot different from what he was accustomed to with the Rangers and Madison Square Garden. In fact, the two fan bases are very different.

At a Rangers game, you see a lot of suits. At a Devils game, you see more fans wearing jerseys. You see more families. From a management standpoint, those differences, according to O’Neil, are “stark and exciting.”

“I think it’s reflective of the New Jersey market,” said O’Neil. “This feels like Norm walking into Cheers. You come in here for a hug, a high five and a smile. You find more friendliness. This is its own market and its own personality and it’s one that we’re really proud of.”

The Devils’ new management can hear the roar of the fans loud and clear, but they also want to know what the fans think about the franchise. They want to hear thoughts and ideas from the Devils faithful about how to improve the experience of going to a game at Prudential Center.

“I don’t think that there’s anything more important than feedback from fans,” O’Neil said. “The good news about being in New Jersey is that you don’t even have to ask. You get it and we’re listening.”

In addition to listening to what the fans have to say, the Devils are also paying close attention to other organizations both in and out of sports. It’s called “exploratory listening.” Management is taking a close look at what is working elsewhere in terms of technology and innovation.

“If something is working in Vancouver that can work here, how can we tweak it and make it very New Jersey Devils?” said O’Neil.

It’s all about making a trip to The Rock all that more enjoyable. Prudential Center is already a terrific world-class venue that was built for hockey. The Devils moved to the new arena in 2007, after calling the Izod Center (formerly Meadowlands Arena, Brendan Byrne Arena and Continental Airlines Arena) home since relocating from Colorado in 1982.

Fans arrive for a New Jersey Devils game in October 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Fans arrive for a New Jersey Devils game in October 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

O’Neil worked for the then New Jersey Nets in the early ’90s, so he can appreciate how important Prudential Center is to the Devils franchise.

“I spent a lot of time at the Continental Airlines Arena,” said O’Neil. “That’s a very cavernous building where the acoustics make it very difficult. Here, you have a real home-ice advantage. This stabilized this franchise for the long term for sure.”

Now that the Devils are on solid ground with new ownership to go along with a state-of-the-art arena, the team can start to implement their short- and long-term vision. As the team goes through their offseason in preparation for the 2014-15 season, the wheels are in motion to make a Devils fan’s experience at a game even more special.

“We’re coming into next year and fans will see a really different experience when they walk in this building,” O’Neil said. “We’ve got 150 some-odd days where we are getting after it and redefining what it’s going to be like to be at a game here.”

That includes what the fan experience and game entertainment experience will look like. The organization is already going through a transformation in their concessions deals. And they continue to look at ways to enhance the overall experience.

“We’ve got a huge opportunity this summer to reach that and that’s fun,” said O’Neil.

Down the road, the Devils have big plans. They are looking to become an organization that will capture the attention of their fans, hockey executives and their marketing partners.

“Five years down the line I would like us to be viewed as a model franchise,” O’Neil said.

That’s a far cry from where this franchise was years ago. There was a time, before the Devils won three Stanley Cup championships, when they were called a Mickey Mouse operation.

And now, loaded with one of the best hockey minds in the NHL, a world class home and new ownership, the Devils are ready to embark on a new era in their history.

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow Devils CEO Scott O’Neil @ScottONeil and the Devils @NHLDevils.

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