As we enter the third year of the global COVID-19 pandemic, looking back at the before-days is getting harder and harder.
What even is normal these days?
The usual sight of seeing packed arenas across the NHL is so far gone at this point. Instead, we've been treated to varying degrees of crowd sizes across the board, with many teams being forced to limit attendance further to fight the rise in the omicron variant.
But just five days ago, a sellout crowd of 38,619 packed Target Field to watch Minnesota and St. Louis duke it out in the league's annual Winter Classic. So to see one of hockey's biggest markets, Toronto, being forced to play in an empty building just feels so off-putting.
It was a normal sight in Canadian arenas last season, with no regular season outings across the countries allowing fans in the seven buildings across the country until the playoffs. The Montreal Canadiens were allowed 3,000 fans for its two home games during the Stanley Cup final, and it felt about a thousand times louder. It was something to behold: the NHL's oldest franchise, playing in the team's first championship series in nearly 30 years after an unlikely run, and in a building with limited attendance.
So, I personally got to attend my first game in front of empty seats on Wednesday for Toronto's bout with Edmonton. Connor McDavid was ruled out of action earlier in the day, which already put a damper on what's always a fun meeting between him and Auston Matthews.
My experience started off a little wonky, with the media meals being in short supply leading up to puck drop. Not a big deal, and the chicken tasted great. But when I arrived to the press box just minutes before warmups, it felt so bizarre-looking at the giant bowl that usually holds close to 20,000 sit completely empty, with blue sponsored tarps covering half of the lower bowl -- essentially everything you can see on the television broadcast. A sight we've become accustomed to, but something we thought we were far beyond at this point.
Everything we hated about hockey a year ago was back. The fake crowd noise returned. Lines to the bathroom? Gone. No scalpers. Nobody manning the beer carts.
But most importantly, no fans. And it felt so weird.
The fake crowd noises sounded strange during the anthem. When William Nylander scored the game's first goal, the artificial cheering was muted compared to what we're used to. In the final minute, with everything on the line, the volume didn't change and it felt more like a mid-game penalty kill. Watching the game at home on television doesn't do it justice. It truly feels like watching a practice session when either team scores a goal in front of an empty building. Even the dang home team.
It was eerie. It felt like I wasn't supposed to be there.
The first period itself was solid. Four goals, two each, and big names like Leon Draisaitl and William Nylander got on the scoresheet, too. But without the loud energy of a raucous building losing its mind with every high-danger scoring chance, it felt like one of the biggest parts of a hockey viewing experience was gone. The second period felt like it dragged on, and the third had a bit more intensity. But it was far from the usual reaction of having a full arena screaming at the closing stages of a one-goal game.
Nobody watches hockey to watch a bunch of people sitting around, but the atmosphere is such an important part of viewing a game live. Hockey relies on energy. It's fast, loud and physical. It feeds on the excitement of fans losing their minds over a big hit or a crafty goal. Without fans, it's manageable when watching on television. In person, it's hard to stay focused and energized. It's hard to explain if you're not there, but it's like watching the start of the fourth inning of a 6-0 baseball game in late July. Nobody's paying attention, the urgency isn't there. It's just not the experience you'd expect from a professional sporting event.
And that's to put blame on any of the staff that helped put the game on. It's not their fault, and the players still play the same no matter what. But it just doesn't feel right for an NHL game in one of the most hockey-obsessed markets in the world.
Games in empty buildings aren't going away in the immediate future. The omicron variant has put North America on notice, and teams all around the league are struggling to deal with it. Montreal has over 20 players in COVID-19 protocols, leaving an already struggling team to gorge its farm system. We're not there yet, and hopefully, for everyone's sake, we get closer to that soon, because overall patience is dwindling to a point we haven't seen before.
You can argue about government mandates all day long. That isn't what this is about. This is about the strange history of watching an NHL game between two major markets in front of no fans, something we never thought we'd have to see. And yet, we saw it 56 times for each team last year, and it's happening again this season.
One day, hopefully soon, packed buildings will return again. Because I think I speak for everyone when I say the sport needs fans more now than probably ever.