In a time when many are challenging anything that dares to mention diversity, equity or inclusion — a time when the idea of identifying communities of any sort is being questioned — the New Jersey Devils remain resolute and steadfast in their support of the Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
Saturday night at Prudential Center, the team will celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Night. It will be the third of five “Hockey is for Everyone” themed nights the team will host this season.
Jillian Frechette, the chief marketing officer for the Devils, the Pru Center and Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, said the promotional nights are about more than an attempt to broaden the team’s base of fans, they are about a commitment the organizations are making toward inclusion.
“Hockey is for Everyone began as an NHL initiative three years ago,” she said. “Each team embraced it in their own way. Some teams did a little bit, and some teams embraced it in a bigger way. I think we are one of the teams that embraced it in a bigger way and really made it our own.”
In a state that embraces its diversity, the idea certainly makes sense. This weekend’s game certainly does. New Jersey is home to more than a million South Asians and East Asians, the great majority of whom live in the North Jersey area.
“This is a great opportunity to be more inclusive and potentially connect with some new fans that haven’t experienced Devils hockey just yet,” Frechette said.
But, as was the case with Hispanic Heritage Night (Oct. 24) and Pride Night (Dec. 21) — and will be the case for Black History Night (Feb. 6) and Gender Equality Night (March 5) — the event offers an opportunity to bring together communities, too.
Frechette points to the creation of a commemorative jersey the team makes for each occasion.
The Devils have a long vetting process to ensure the jersey is designed by someone not only connected to the community, but the state of New Jersey. For Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Night, the jersey was designed by Somerset-based local artist Teena Soni — the daughter and granddaughter of renowned artists from Udaipur, Rajasthan, in India.
Soni, who works within the traditional Indian miniature painting art style and uses authentic Pichwai techniques for each piece, created a crest on the jersey that reflects the rich tapestry of Indian heritage with a verdant landscape.
Frechette said the making of the jersey shows the power of connecting firsthand.
The process, which takes months, involves numerous meetings and discussions between the members of the Devils marketing staff and the artist, Frechette said.
“I’ll have three or four people on my team spend 60 to 90 days with these different artists leading up to the game,” she said. “By the time the game rolls around, it’s such a learning experience. It’s an opportunity for the artists to really sort of have a window into the hockey world, but, equally for my squad, it’s often a window into whatever cultural segment that we’re working on.”
As they have for the two previous Hockey is for Everyone nights, the Devils players likely will wear the uniform during their walk-in to the arena. They then will sign the jerseys and put them up for auction to raise money for a cause benefiting the community the jersey represents.
And, while the walk-in event shows team bonding and support for communities, the process does show the dissension around DEI issues.
Last year, after some players in the NHL (none on the Devils) objected to wearing various jerseys during warmups, the league said ceremonial jerseys could not be worn on the ice.
“Our guys are an accepting and positive bunch, and they typically will embrace them and wear them on walk-ins,” Frechette said.
That rule has not slowed the Devils or the Pru Center, which do numerous in-game events celebrating the night. And it doesn’t prevent the Devils’ mascot, NJ Devil, from wearing the commemorative jersey on the ice. The Devils are believed to be the only team in the league to do so.
The key, of course, is keeping the good feelings going after the event.
“To make this relevant, it has to be relevant for more than just one evening,” Frechette said. “We need to be doing a lot of storytelling to drive that fan engagement.”
Frechette said the Devils have no plans to slow down.
“Since I took this role five years ago, our commitment has always been to nurture and diversify our fan base,” she said. “This is not a passing fad. We’re excited about this.”
Many fans are excited, too. The recently finished auction of Pride jerseys will be worth donations of more than $20,000 to appropriate nonprofits, Frechette said.
But, you can’t put a price on acceptance.
Frechette said her favorite part of “Hockey is for Everyone” nights is to see fans who bought the jersey then wearing them to the game.
“When I see people wearing a jersey that they paid a pretty penny for, one that has a player signature on, I just love that,” she said. “That’s an incredibly special fandom experience.”