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The NHL is Hopefully Nearing the End of Empty Arenas

Teams across the league are finally starting to return to full capacity. For some of the NHL's biggest markets, it's a welcomed sight, and empty buildings are something that's hopefully a thing of the past.
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I realized from a pretty early age that I was not destined for professional hockey. 

It's one of the rare flashes of productive foresight I've displayed in my otherwise entirely foolish life. A 10-year-old who hates backchecking and loves cheeseburgers likely wasn't going to make the show. And from that moment on, after reality hit young Mike squarely between his dumb little eyes, every fiber of my being became focused on one day getting paid to judge those good enough to do what I never could: Play in the NHL. 

I tell you this to illustrate the gravity of my next point. 

That dream has come true this season. I still can't believe it did. 

But in the days following Dec. 11, the last home game the Toronto Maple Leafs would hold with 100 percent fan capacity for the next three months, sitting in the Scotiabank Arena press box felt garishly hollow. 

Not to sound too dramatic or anything, but I truly believe that covering the games with zero fans took a piece of my soul. Everything about the experience was downright dystopian; the canned crowd noise, the sterile air, the massive blue tarps draped over the 100 level seats that somehow displayed even less character than the suits that usually sit there. 

They even took our intermission pizza away, if you can believe it -- which, in all fairness, did help my waistline, so there was a silver lining. 

But still, it was a massive bummer. And don't you dare laugh at me! 

At the end of the day, closing the door to fans in the midst of a pandemic was a necessary health measure put in place to ensure the safety of the public. At the time, it needed to happen. 

And I hope with my whole heart that we never have to do it again. 

Fans returned to Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night for the first time since that fateful December day, with no capacity restrictions in place. The atmosphere inside was electric. Section ushers, concession workers, even THN's own Ryan Kennedy, who was unlucky enough to be stuck next to me on media row, had a pep in their step. 

It was the little things about the game-day experience that you miss the most. Those that returned in full force ahead of puck drop. 

Martin Ortiz-Luis stole the show with her typically flawless renditions of the Canadian and American anthems, reminding the public that hers is a voice worthy only of a packed house. In-arena host Scotty Willats was so enthused at finally having a crowd to play off of that he nearly lost his voice by the third period. 

Even Carlton the Bear was getting in on the action, with his t-shirt tosses seeming to land two rows higher than usual all throughout the night. 

On paper, nothing could go wrong. 

"Everyone's extremely excited," explained Mitch Marner on Wednesday morning when asked about the return of home fans that night. 

"It's a little bit of everything, to be honest. The feel, noise, seeing (fans). It's just nice when you see no real empty seats...When there's a big play or something happens, just hearing the noise and hearing the fans go nuts, it's pretty rewarding"

The Leafs didn't give their fans many "big plays" to go nuts over on Wednesday night, unfortunately. In fact, the team played arguably their worst game of the entire season, dropping a 5-1 decision to the Sabres who had entered the contest on a six-game losing streak and a whopping 31 points back of Toronto in the Atlantic Division. 

"Terrible from start to finish" was how Sheldon Keefe assessed the performance. 

"Offensively, we were terrible. All four lines."

It's hard to argue with Keefe on that one, really. 

The Leafs were bad. Extremely bad, all while being unable to get anything going against a Sabres' squad trotting out a 40-year-old netminder -- coming off a catastrophic neck injury, no less -- between the pipes. 

But the stench of this performance did not go to waste. In fact, it gave those in attendance, and the Leafs themselves, a taste of the flip side of the fan experience. 

That being; the Leafs were booed off the ice at night's end by the fraction of blue and white faithful who hadn't left early to beat the traffic. 

Petr Mrazek got it the worst, unfortunately. The 30-year-old netminder was treated to some of the louder Bronx cheers I've ever heard from the 17,000 on hand after making routine saves to close out a five-goals-on-31-shots performance. 

Not all five were entirely Mrazek's fault, to be fair. But for a fanbase still raw from heartbreak, Wednesday offered them a well-deserved outlet to let their feelings be heard. 

And boy, did they ever. 

Which, at the heart of it all, is precisely what a professional sports stadium should serve to be: four walls in which thousands of like-minded people can cheer, jeer, and simply live in the moment. Together. 

Sometimes that moment is perfect. Sometimes, as it was on Wednesday, it's borderline unwatchable. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Simply having the opportunity to bask in that moment, to share that camaraderie in good times and bad, regardless of the outcome, is a special thing. And something I will never take for granted for the rest of my life. 

Fans in Toronto were given that moment back last night. 

I don't think they'll ever let it go again. 

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