The New Jersey Devils' Stanley Cup celebration may turn into a farewell party, with team captain Scott Stevens carrying the Cup out of the Meadowlands Arena parking lot today and heading south on the New Jersey Turnpike toward Nashville, Tenn.
Three days after they completed a sweep of the Detroit Red Wings to win their first NHL championship, the Devils on Tuesday brought their long-simmering dispute with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to a head by sending notice of their intention to terminate their lease on July 6 because of alleged defaults. That contradicted a notice they sent the authority Monday stating their intention to terminate the lease after the 1996-97 season.
NJSEA Chairman Michael D. Francis and President Robert E. Mulcahy said in a statement that Tuesday's letter "comes as a total shock." The authority scheduled an emergency meeting of its board of commissioners for today, two hours before the Stanley Cup party is scheduled to begin outside the Devils' home arena, but canceled the session Tuesday night without giving a reason.
The NJSEA filed a complaint in the Chancery Division of Bergen County (N.J.) Superior Court to seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the Devils from unlawfully terminating their agreement and relocating. The complaint also seeks compensatory, consequential, punitive and exemplary damages due to "willful, wanton and intentional breach of the License Agreement."
The statement added, "The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority has lived up to all its obligations under the Agreement as amended and there is no basis for the Devils' claims."
The club's lease, which has been renegotiated twice since New Jersey native John McMullen bought the franchise and moved it to the Meadowlands from Colorado in 1982, expires in 2002. It was most recently amended in 1991.
Lou Lamoriello, the Devils' general manager, said Tuesday's letter was not an absolute indication the club will move and said the club remains willing to continue negotiations. He said the letter was merely the club's "exercise of certain legal rights under the terms of its license agreement with the authority for use of the Byrne [Meadowlands] Arena. The Devils will continue to explore with authority representatives any proposal that could lead to a satisfactory resolution toward a new license agreement."
In an attempt to void the lease, the Devils filed a breach of contract notice with the NJSEA and cited 13 alleged lease violations. Those violations included the authority's alleged failure to fix a pedestrian bridge over Route 120, one of the many roads that rings the Meadowlands Sports Complex, and the maintenance of too low a temperature in the Meadowlands Arena.
The Devils rejected an offer by the authority on May 17 that would have sweetened their lease, saying the authority had failed to provide the results of an audit of revenues they believe they are owed from arena operations. They reportedly are seeking a share of the authority's profits, of which the NJSEA says the club is not entitled.
McMullen has been using as leverage in negotiations an offer he has received from Nashville, which is building a $120-million arena in hopes of luring a pro sports team. The offer includes a $20-million relocation bonus and a share of revenues from non-hockey events at the arena, scheduled to open for the 1996-97 hockey season.
McMullen recently admitted to the New York Daily News he "made a serious mistake" in relocating the club to the Meadowlands because, between the time he agreed to purchase the Rockies and the time he completed the deal, the NJSEA's administration changed.
"I suddenly walked into a very confrontational and difficult management at the Sports Authority. At that point, I should have said, 'Look, let's go back to Denver,' " he said.
The Devils have suffered from an identity crisis as the third and newest hockey team in the sports-inundated New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. The New York Rangers monopolized the area until the New York Islanders were born in 1972, and the Devils failed to win over Ranger fans who live in northern New Jersey. They've also had little impact in central or southern New Jersey, where many fans remain loyal to the Philadelphia Flyers.
For years, the Devils sold out the Meadowlands Arena only for games against the Rangers. The crowd's allegiance to the New York team was audible. Even this spring, when the Devils played the Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals, many fans vocally backed Philadelphia. The Devils, who do not release their attendance figures, averaged about 16,000 fans per game at the 19,040-seat Meadowlands Arena.
The NHL did not comment on Tuesday's events. Last week, Commissioner Gary Bettman said of a move by the Devils, "In the ordinary course of things, it wouldn't be your first preference."