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Hugh Weber Q&A: Talking Devils rebuild, prospects and global growth of the NHL

The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy chatted with New Jersey Devils president Hugh Weber about selecting Jack Hughes, the further growth of hockey around the world and the future of the Devils franchise.

Ryan Kennedy: I’m here with Hugh Weber, the president of the New Jersey Devils. And to begin with, Hugh, obviously a huge day for the Devils, what does it mean to have Jack Hughes as a part of this organization now, officially?

Hugh Weber: So, the New Jersey Devils have an amazing fanbase and we’ve been working very hard for the last six years to re-tool this team to get it back to a Stanley Cup contending team. And to be able to take a huge step, today, as part of that ongoing progression, has sped up our timeline based on the fact that we were able to get the no. 1 draft pick today. And so, we’re excited. We work very hard to win, but at the same time, we’re fans. So, we think this puts us in a very good position to compete at a high-level next year.

RK: Now, with the rebuild, you’re adding these pieces, you already have Nico Hischier as a no. 1 pick. For an organization that is in a competitive market—I would consider New York part of that market—what does it mean to have a couple of big, young names on your roster right now?

HW: So, I think you raise an interesting dynamic which is we’re in a very crowded market for hockey, right? It’s unprecedented, there are three NHL teams in one market so the fanbases are very competitive. I think that the fact that the no.1 and 2 picks went to two of these teams, us and the Rangers, which there’s already a rivalry, it’s a great narrative, it’s a great marketing tool for us for a long time. These players are going to be compared for a long time. It also is going to be fed by this frenzy of competitiveness between our fanbases. So, again, any time the teams are good in this market, and it looks like now, we are on a stage where all the teams in the New York market will be good for some time to come, it’s great not only for the New York and New Jersey markets but more importantly it’s good for the NHL, in my opinion. I think it drives a very strong narrative to have a media market this big with competitive teams and, not only that, but star players doing dynamic things and teams going deep into the playoffs.

RK: Now, it’s not just the on-ice product that’s important, obviously. New Jersey is doing a lot of things on the corporate side to boost the franchise’s profile and engage with fans. What to you is the key to making this a successful franchise, not only on the ice but off it as well?

HW: So, I think we have an incredible partner and leader in Ray Shero. Ray is someone who is not only just driving to put a competitive team on the ice that’s going to be able to, again, compete for Stanley Cups, but more importantly, give this team personality, give it relevance, give it an ability to potentially go build a legacy. So, you could argue that the New Jersey Devils have a history and tradition which is unprecedented: 20 years of playoffs, three Stanley Cups and five finals, it was wonderful. But I would say the ability for the fans to connect with the personality of the players who played on those teams was pretty limited. And so, Ray has a much different approach. You know, if you look at the transparency and openness that he has provided through content: letting cameras into the room as we discuss and develop draft picks, into the room as we were interviewing these draft picks at the combine, into the room and locker-room as we’re at the beginning of last season NHL Network came in and did ‘Behind the Glass’. That type of connection where our fans can actually see the people behind the people behind the mystique and the player and the stats and the wins, we think, is part of what makes the future of the New Jersey Devils more ‘sticky’, more connective to the young fans and young families that are now bringing their kids to Devils games for the first time. And we think that that’s going to be the difference maker as through wins and losses, good and bad, you build that fanbase that’s with you and sticking with you because they believe in the way you’re doing things.

RK: Now, the NHL continues to grow as a global game. The Devils recently had the opportunity to play in Europe. I’m just curious what your thoughts are on the NHL’s global plans, not only Europe but also China?

HW: So, the Devils are part of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, which had properties in the NBA and in eSports. So, we are very focused on the media-reach and what the global and international scope of our brands and content can be. And we think that the NHL is at the cusp of potentially pushing out, not just in Europe. Obviously, it’s got a strong brand in Europe and a lot of play and players coming out of Europe. But with the Olympics coming to China and obviously a greater emphasis on outreach in China, just getting 10 percent, or even five percent, or even one percent of the population of China to become followers and/or admirers of hockey would be a game-changer for us in terms of how our content is used globally and therefore how it translates from a commercial standpoint into our media rights. So, again, we’re very focused and have partnered with the league to say: “utilize us anyway we can to help spread the game, globally.” Even though our market may be defined as X amount of miles outside of New Jersey, we really see that the Devils have an opportunity to, with our international players and style of play and by going to Europe, as you said, last year and potentially going to Asia in the future, that we can actually build a brand in a place where people don’t have an affinity to any team.

RK: And finally, going back to the draft. You guys won the lottery, and you actually knew the result before most everybody else in the hockey world, you were sequestered away. What was that time like, knowing what you did but not being able to say anything?

HW: Yeah, it’s like the World’s greatest tease, right? So, you have this great information and you want to call your families and friends and all the people that have been working so hard to get there and yet you’re stuck for an hour-and-a-half. Although it is fun to watch it unfold on TV knowing that you already know the answer. So, it was a lot of fun, it’s something I’ll remember forever. And hopefully, if we’re… we don’t want to be in the lottery room again, but if we are, I hope that it’s something we can repeat.

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