TORONTO – What you notice are the things that are glaringly absent, of course. The scalpers, sweatered fans and giddy buzz that orbit an NHL rink on game day. And you marvel how easy it is to locate a decent parking space so close to puck drop.
But you also notice the things that have always been there, only buried under sport’s thick blanket of hype and noise.
You are reminded of hockey’s essential purity when you strip away kiss cams and beer vendors and those sponsor-logo’d T-shirts parachuting from the rafters.
Without a crowd to entertain (and a game-operations crew flinging all kinds of crazy spaghetti at the wall to do so) and with no products to push, the sounds of a live NHL game have more than six feet of space to breathe.
The crunch of two grown-ups colliding into the boards, the beaver-tailing of an open winger hungry for the puck and the constant patter of the game is music to our ears: “Down low, down low!”… “No ice!”… “Wheel, wheel, wheel, wheel.”
Don’t get it twisted: When Conor Sheary snipes the first recorded NHL goal since March Break became redundant, House of Pain’s “Jump Around” still blares from the arena loudspeakers. Thing is, no one jumps around.
You know when some wealthy baron hires Drake for, like, a kajillion dollars to fly to Dubai and put on a private concert for his daughter’s sweet 16th birthday? That’s what being here — watching Sidney Crosby and Sean Couturier create scoring chances for your eyes only — feels like. I’m guessing.
It’s the hockey sounds that get you. They don’t make you miss seeing the dude who’s guzzled six $18 Coors Lights dance to “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” You don’t crave The Wave.
As Crosby wins the opening draw of hockey’s return, you think, for the 87th time, about how weird this is. All of it.
A text from your wife pops up: “Enjoy it, Luke. The world is a perfect mess.”
Hearing blades slice through crisp ice or catching the successive slap-thwack-thud of a tipped point shot getting kicked away by Tristan Jarry’s pad? That stuff is contagious… under the safest conditions imaginable, of course.
If you can get past the eeriness of an NHL game with no fans, the exclusivity is so titillating it makes you feel like you sneaked in the place.
That, however, would be the furthest thing from truth.
To gain entry to the first National Hockey League game played under pandemic lockdown — an exhibition rivalry matinee pitting the Penguins against the “home team” Flyers on Tuesday — you must download the Clear app, scan your government ID, get turned away from gates by two security guards because you’re too close to the real bubble, locate the one proper entry gate, pass two temperature checks, answer a series of yes-or-no symptom queries (online and again at the gate), take Scotiabank Arena elevator up to the 300 level with no more than two other passengers, then find your seat in section 311.
Mask on always.
Arena workers mill about with Lysol wipes, cleaning seats no one is sitting in or is allowed to sit in later. Staff hustles out to give the team benches a thorough sanitizing between periods. All players have tested negative more times than they can count, by this point. The ice crews now come equipped with facemasks as well as shovels for their TV timeout duties.
On your makeshift media desk — where the nosebleed seat-holders would be sitting and drinking and screaming in an alternate universe — sits a full bottle of hand sanitizer and a pack of antibacterial wipes.
At some point, you’ll realize you have 311 to yourself. Your closest neighbour has 312 to himself, and you’d need a healthy step or two to spiral a football far enough for him to snag it.
You might be a better chance of catching ill if you were watching the game on the sofa with the window down. Or if you purchased one of the fan-priced $14 egg salad sandwiches for sale on the concourse (no lineups, though!).
When the crowd’s absence is sorely felt is with the score 2-1 Philly late in the third. Close game, zero atmosphere. No “ooh” or “ahh” opportunities to tie the contest late. No eruption of cheers accompany Jason Zucker’s tying goal that sends the thing into overtime, nor Scott Laughton’s clock-stopper that wins it for the Flyers.
On this day — hockey’s first game day, after 140 decidedly more boring ones — COVID-19 is running through the MLB’s Miami Marlins. Baseball series are getting postponed to dates unknown. Chartered planes don’t leave the runway.
“We are in a bubble. Major League Baseball is not,” Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy points out, and he makes a strong, if plain, point.
That we are here, all 12 of us, at all is testament to the NHL and its Players’ Association desire to find a way, to make it work midsummer, mid-crisis.
To think, the average annual break between NHL games in a typical off-season, from Cup hoist to pre-season, is 98 days.
This meaningful/meaningless Penguins-Flyers tilt has been 140 days in the making.
“Going back five months ago, I would’ve never imagined you’d stand in front of a computerized, artificial-intelligence machine that tells you your temperature and gives you a green light or a red light to proceed with your day,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas says. “If you had told me five months ago this is where we were going to be at, I would’ve never believed it. We’re just excited to have the chance to be back and be playing.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan has taken some moments away from his depth charts and Crosby’s health updates to consider the quiet bit of history his team helped make Tuesday, under this secluded spotlight.
“What I have thought about is the importance of sports during a difficult time, and how passionate people are around the respective sports and the role that we play in society,” Sullivan says.
“I also think about the huge undertaking the league has attempted to put together here. Having spent a couple of days now in the hub city, in the ‘bubble,’ so to speak, I’m so impressed with the organization and the attention to detail with what the league has gone through to try to keep our players safe and our coaches safe and everyone involved safe — and, at the same time, allowing the spirit of competition to take place.
“Sports plays an important role in our society,” the coach goes on, virtually answering a reporter he cannot see, way up in 311.
“For me, this is an important moment for our league and our game and, maybe most importantly, our fans.”
Even if they didn’t have a snowball-thrown-at-Santa’s chance in hell to witness it.