EDMONTON — We witnessed some truly memorable hockey in this rink since August of 2020, from seats that no media has a right to sit in — or could afford under normal circumstances.
We were allowed in to cover our teams when the fans were kept away, and we’ll tell you now: it never really felt right.
Tampa Bay wins a Stanley Cup in the bubble, and we marvelled as Nathan MacKinnon burned up the same track that Connor McDavid blazed down on Wednesday night, an up close look at a Team Canada superstar that was wasted on the few who were present.
Last spring we saw half of a Winnipeg Jets sweep in the same cavernous, empty room, a series that left Rogers Place and never came home from Winnipeg the way it was supposed to. Another anticlimactic bit of pandemic hockey, with its fake crowd noise and ice cold buildings.
We saw a lot. What we didn’t do was hear anything.
That ended on Wednesday, thankfully, in a blazing fast and wildly entertaining 3-2 shootout win for the Edmonton Oilers over a game Vancouver Canucks team. And while I can’t wait to write this Oilers team throughout the season, a true contender after two decades of pretenders in this town, we’ll get back to the that on Friday.
Today, this was about the fans. We all knew we’d miss an arena full of fans, but we’ll admit it now.
I never fathomed how much.
“It gives you such a boost of energy,” began Kyle Turris, after his first game in front of a Canadian crowd since he was an Ottawa Senator. “The momentum shifts in the game after you score a goal, just walking out to start the game, hearing them singing the Canadian national anthem… They are all such boosts of energy.
“It’s hard to justify (or) explain how big of a difference it is and how good it feels being at home and having the crowd behind you.”
At one point last season, McDavid split Shea Weber and his Canadiens partner, then walked in to score the go-ahead goal late in a game against Montreal. It was a goal that would have raised the roof here. Should have.
I was thinking of that wasted moment of McDavid magic as Jesse Puljujarvi, author of the game’s first goal, stood in the slot Wednesday. Puljujarvi banged in a rebound then stood in place, arms raised, as 16,034 fans celebrated the first regular-season goal scored before an audience here since March of 2020.
It was as if the moment was staged: a city’s new folk hero, a season-opening goal, the first crowd, and there was all six-foot-four of Puljujarvi, towering over Thatcher Demko as an Oilers crowd raised its voice as one for the first time in seemingly forever.
“For me it’s the little things,” began Zach Hyman. “When you’re going on the forecheck and you make a play and the fans realize it. Every hit, there’s sound in the building. There’s life.”
To hear a crowd call a too many men on the ice penalty, the way they did in the second period of Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime win, is music to these ears. To hear them stand and cheer the new guy, Colton Sceviour, for going after the Canuck who levelled Duncan Keith, is magic.
On Hyman’s goal, his first as an Oiler, every set of eyes in the room thought they were about to watch Leon Draisaitl tee up a power-play one-timer from his spot. The emotion rose as Draisaitl cocked his stick.
But he faked the shot, and slid a puck to Hyman in the blue paint, a tap-in for the former Maple Leaf, and the beginning of a seven-year friendship with a Toronto kid in the Mountain time zone. The place went crazy.
“You score a goal, and the roof’s gonna come off,” Hyman said. “Hockey is meant to be played in front of fans. In my first game as an Edmonton Oiler it was awesome to see how passionate the fans are.
“A great first experience, being an Oiler.”
Welcome back. Finally.