âI felt amazing,â Suzuki said of playing in front of just 12% of his capacity. âThe energy they created for us was incredible.
“I don’t know how we played without them, to be honest.”
Winter and spring 2021 have been a long one for NHL players and fans in Canada. While arenas in the United States gradually opened as coronavirus vaccine rates increased, venues remained almost entirely closed north of the border thanks to slower deployment and tighter regulations.
Montreal beat Toronto in overtime in that first NHL game in Canada with paying fans since March 2020, and after winning Game 7 on the road two nights later to complete the return from a 3-1 deficit. in the series, would again fit in front of 2,500 fans twice in the Canadiens’ equally surprising sweep against the Winnipeg Jets.
Attendance increased to 3,500 spectators for the third round against the Vegas Golden Knights and the Stanley Cup final with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who beat Montreal in five games for their second straight title.
âI felt a little numb because we didn’t have fans for such a long time,â Suzuki said, recalling that first night when the faces returned to the crowd. âI was like, ‘Maybe it’s the same.’
âThen all of a sudden we got them backâ¦ it changes the whole atmosphere. “
Canadian NHL teams are set for the fans’ return this season as the league returns to an 82-game schedule and regular division setup.
The seven franchises only played against each other until the semifinals last season due to border restrictions, meaning thunderous music and man-made noise replaced 20,000 voices inside them. arenas.
âI’m really excited to have the fans back in the building,â said Calgary Flames winger Andrew Mangipane.
“And not to hear the fake noise of the crowd.”
Toronto hosts Montreal at Scotiabank Arena for exhibition game on Saturday – Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment announced on Friday that capacity will be 50% after Ontario eases restrictions – for the site’s first event with paying customers since March 10, 2020.
“Oh my God, we missed it so much,” said Toronto winger William Nylander. âYou know how much the team loves the fans, what the fans mean to us and what we mean to the fans.
âIt will be so nice to find them. “
The Ottawa Senators hope to host a large crowd for their opener, while the Jets expect to play to full halls this season. The Vancouver Canucks are limited to 50 percent of their capacity as it stands, but the team said they hoped the restrictions would be relaxed.
The Flames and Edmonton Oilers are currently allowed to fill their arenas although Alberta is under a public health emergency due to a wave of COVID-19, while the Canadians are allowed to play in front of 33 % of their normal capacity.
Every NHL rink in Canada will require proof of vaccination for fans to attend, with the exception of Rogers Place in Edmonton, which also accepts a negative COVID-19 test.
Players were asked several times ahead of the pandemic shortened season how they would deal with empty buildings. Most showed courage and talked about being professionals who could motivate themselves, but it was harder than expected in a busy season with little downtime.
â(Photo) Monday night (in Vancouver) with no fans and you’re tired,â said Canadiens winger Tyler Toffoli. âYou know you have to fly six hours after the game. You just dread that. You need a little extra motivationâ¦ it was really tough.
“Mentally it was the most difficult year of my entire career.”
Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko said some NHL players might have taken for granted what loud crowds bring before the pandemic.
âIt put a lot of perspective in the minds of the players as to what the fans mean for the game,â he said.
Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele found that the crowd-influenced lack of momentum was noticeable both at home and on the road.
âA big save, a blocked shot or a big goalâ¦ there’s only one goal horn,â he said. âYou don’t get the full appreciation. “
âThere can be a little bit of a hit and people go crazy,â added Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse. “You don’t know how much you miss it until you have fans.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said the situation even had an impact on those standing behind the bench.
âWe were really separated,â he said of last season. âAnd what did we learn? We’ve learned that we need our fans to appreciate our work – we really do.
âI didn’t enjoy the parts of my job that I’ve always loved, and those are the games. I love going to the ice rink. And there’s no one in the building and you’re like, ‘What are we doing? It’s not funny.
“It just wasn’t fun.”
Winnipeg center Pierre-Luc Dubois did his best to ignore the crowd, but noticed a difference as last season wore on.
âThe teams did their best,â he said. “But there’s no such thing as a borderline fan who puts their finger at you, slams the glass and tells you you suck.” There is nothing quite like hearing that sometimes.
“It’s definitely something that I missed.”
He was finally able to relive it at the Bell Center during the playoffs.
âI was in the penalty box and the fans chant my name to make fun of me,â Dubois remembers. âBut they didn’t know it, I had a smile on my face.
âI’m like ‘Ah, they’re back. Finally, we are back.
And that was only the beginning.
-With files from Neil Davidson in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 24, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press