Simulating sense of normalcy: Devils find virtual games have been big hit with fans

Matt Loughlin provided the play-by-play. New Jersey Devils players did postgame interviews. And, of course, it all started with Arlette singing the national anthem. From her house.

When the Devils came up with the creative idea of showing simulated games — everything from playing out the regular season on the regularly scheduled dates to having the current team play Devils championship teams from the past — they wanted to make sure their fans were left wanting for nothing.

Because the team knew they wanted — and needed — hockey. Or what hockey brought to their lives.

That was the feeling of team President Jake Reynolds.

LinkedIn/Jake Reynolds
Jake Reynolds is president of the New Jersey Devils.

“We’ve talked about, what do we want to be and how do we want to show up during a time like this?” he told ROI-NJ. “And, for us, it’s about entertaining. It’s about inspiring hope. It’s about helping people heal.

“Two days into this process, we knew we’re going to be on pause with some of these games, but we wanted to give our fans, who were in the middle of hockey season, something. So, our marketing group came up with the idea to play the rest of this season out on the exact game dates against the exact opponents. And let’s do it through simulated games.”

And Reynolds, always thinking of the fan experience, wanted it to be different.

“We wanted to take it up one, two or three levels,” he said.

One of his favorite moments was when goalie Cory Schneider did a post-game interview … after a 98-save performance on 102 shots. It was a far from typical effort. And a far from standard interview.

“He had his kids climbing on his back the whole time,” Reynolds said. “That made it very real. It was genuine. It was authentic. It was something our fans needed.”

They responded.

“One of my favorite things was being able to actually hear from our fans through social media, sending me videos of their kids, watching the game, celebrating after a goal,” Reynolds said. “Quite frankly, thanking us, and sending us a note saying, ‘This is the first sense of normalcy my kids have had during this quarantine.’

“We always talk about the power of sports and what it means and we’ve always believed it, but you see to what extent it really, truly has an impact during a time like this when you have parents and kids engaging it at this type of level.”

The games have been a hit with fans. One recent effort against the Philadelphia Flyers brought more than 60,000 views.

The simulated games are just one aspect of the “We Are One” campaign the team has soft launched during the state shutdown.

It’s everything from providing more than 160,000 meals to those in Newark who are struggling, promising more than 10,000 tickets to employees of the team’s health care partner, RWJBarnabas Health, to keeping its own full-time (and part-time) staff employed and engaged as well as having the managing partners, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, make substantial personal donations.

“We went into this year with the marketing campaign, ‘We Are the Ones,’ which was kind of a nod to our team,” Reynolds said. “During this time, we’ve taken a step back and said: ‘Our community needs something different. Our fans need something different.’

“So, it’s a slight nuance and slight tweak. But, in terms of what it means, there’s a massive difference. We’ve morphed this campaign into, ‘We Are One.’ It’s exactly what it sounds like. It is a campaign that is designed to offer the hope, inspiration and healing into the broader community of New Jersey — where we live, work and play — at a time of instability and uncertainty and drastic changes.

“We are one team. We are one state. We are one community. This is us bringing our entire community together and being that shoulder of hopeful strength and escape that the sports often provides for our fans.”

Reynolds has made a point to bring that spirit into the now-virtual office of the staff of the team and the Prudential Center.

“One of the things that we’ve talked about as an organization is what we want our environment and our culture to be like,” he said. “We want to treat this like a family. So, it’s been really fun to see that support system come into play during the time like this. Normally, we’re in the office with each other, we’re in an arena full of fans and we feel connected all the time.

“And then you go from that to the world we’re living in now — this new normal where your connectivity is virtual. That’s really different and it’s challenging and it impacts everybody differently. But one of the core focuses for our organization during this time has been, how do we continue to make our employees feel connected and then give them opportunities to stay connected?”

Reynolds said it starts with constant contact, holding staff Zoom meetings with full-time staff and part-time staff — and making sure each one is unique.

Reynolds said he makes sure there’s more personal time where people can share experiences, and he brings on players, enabling them to share their stories and interact with the staff in ways they didn’t before.

“It’s actually made it really fun and it’s certainly different than what it was before,” he said. “It’s amazing from how many people I’ve heard from. They actually feel more connected to people on their team during this time than they did before.

“And, so, as challenging this is, I think there are a lot of lessons that we can take from this as a business in terms of how do we operate at a higher level knowing what we’ve seen on both sides of this now.”

The Devils are continuing to do simulated games.

If you need more hockey, check out one this Saturday, an all-star matchup against the New York Rangers as Jesper Bratt, Travis Zajac, John MacLean, Ken Daneyko, Scott Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur will take on Rangers greats Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Rod Gilbert, Brian Leetch, Brad Park and Mike Richter.

And, if you need more Devils content, we have a Q&A from our interview with Reynolds. Read that here.

Read more from ROI-NJ: