What it’s like attending an NHL game during the pandemic

When I sat down to write this article I wanted it to be magic. After all, it is my first official article for She Writes Sports and  I’m a big believer in that whole good first impressions thing.  It’s a topic I picked and can easily talk about, so making that magic should be easy right?! Yeah, I found out not so much when I actually put fingers to keyboard. 
I chose  to write about my return experience to Nationwide Arena to watch the Blue Jackets play one year after the pandemic started. The State of Ohio finally deemed things safe enough to let fans back in at a 25 percent capacity and a lot of people were excited to get back and cheer on their team in person. Since these are weird times and no one has ever had the actual experience of attending an NHL game in pandemic times, I thought, what a great topic to write about.  I had to miss the first game on March 2nd when fans were allowed back into the building so I recruited a few people to give me their point of view.  I was so all in and excited that I even had one of the members of the CBJ organization talk to me about his experience of being in the building without the fans for the first half of the season. It was shaping up to be a great first article! Then my day came to head back into NWA. After talking to all my interviewees I was excited but still didn’t quite know what to expect because everyone’s experiences are different.  Turns out my personal experience was a whole lot different than everyone’s I had talked to. Mine was kind of depressing actually and no amount of spin would fix it. We’ll get into that in a few, but first, let me introduce you to my gracious volunteers who took me through their nights. 

I’ll start with the CBJ organization member. Now, I don’t want to get them in trouble for not going through the proper channels of doing an interview, so I’ll let you know now that I may or may not have changed their name to protect the innocent. 

Bruce Wayne has been with the organization since 2003. He has worked many CBJ games including the historic playoff series sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2018-2019.   He’s seen a lot. What he hadn’t seen was an NHL game played in an empty arena. Being essential staff he was there in January when the NHL season opened without fans and here’s what Bruce told me about the experience. 

“I’ve been on-site in the organization since the 2003-2004 season and I never could have imagined what I’d witness in person on January 21, 2021. With no fans and only essential personnel in Nationwide Arena, it was the most surreal event I’ve ever been a part of. The game against Tampa Bay (that night) felt kind of like a private scrimmage, except with actual referees and the outcome having mattered in the record books. Hearing the chirps from the players on the ice and their sticks hitting the pucks was something we don’t normally hear very well and that part was a pleasant surprise, but I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the fake and piped in crowd noise. I understand why it was done for the players’ sake, but nothing beats the real thing!”

Columbus Blue Jackets first home game of the season. January 21st, 2021. Picture courtesy of Bruce Wayne.

Ah yes, “nothing beats the real thing,” which leads me to two people who were in Nationwide for that game on March 2nd. Chloe and Taylor detailed their feelings for me first hand. When they got into their seats, I asked via a text message, tell me what it’s like to be back in the arena after a year. 

Chloe: “It feels weird and not like it has been a year! It feels like forever and yesterday at the same time. I have my own personal reasons  why it feels weird  but overall it’s nice to be back and out of the house again! I’m just a bit anxious.”
Taylor: “It feels so weird but for some reason, I feel really anxious and I don’t know what. That just describes today I feel like I’m just anxious!”

The Jackets welcome fans back to Nationwide Arena one year after the pandemic started . March 2nd 2021. Picture courtesy of Chloe.

At this time Ohio was only allowing in 10 percent of the capacity (they upped it to 25% starting the week of March 8th) so I wanted to know if it was strange or exciting to be part of the roughly 2,000 people. 

Chloe: “I think it’s exciting because 2,000 isn’t a lot if you think about it and a lot of people would love to be here so I feel lucky to have the chance and like I said before it’s nice to be out of the house and somewhere again! It’s also strange to see how few people are in there though.”

Taylor: “Both! It’s exciting to finally be back but walking through the arena with so few people is so strange. It’s weirdly calm and I’ve never been in the arena like this before.”

The crowd of 1,953 watches the Blue Jackets take on the Detroit Red Wings on March 2nd, 2021. Picture courtesy of Chloe.

Finally, I wanted to know what they were looking forward to most at being able to attend games again.

Chloe: “Feeling like things are going back to normal! Coming to games was such a normal thing to me that you don’t realize how much you appreciate something until you can’t do it anymore. It’s nice to finally have something to do again, even if it’s way different than before and I feel different about being here.”
Taylor:  “Getting a little bit of pre-pandemic life back, a normalcy return I guess!”

Bruce even noted the difference between the building in January and now with the fans back  “finally Nationwide Arena is allowed to have 10% capacity filled with all COVID-19 regulations and precautions in effect. That equated to a very excited and energetic crowd of 1,953. It was wonderful for us to smile, wave, and welcome back the fans as they made the way to their seats. When the CBJ first hit the ice that evening, they were greeted by a standing ovation and enough noise to echo throughout the entire arena. When the Jackets scored their first goal, the exasperation and relief from the fans was incredible. The best fans in the NHL experienced something they hadn’t in over a year, and it was joyous! They made their presence known, they booed the refs, and cheered their team on to a 4-1 victory. It may have only been 10% capacity, but it made all the difference in the world. I can’t wait for the other 90% to join us!”   
Joyous and back to normal, two things I think just about everyone wants at this point and something I myself was looking forward to. 

However, when the 13th rolled around, I experienced the complete opposite.  My return trip to the building I have spent the last 19 seasons in was a whole new mix of emotions I wasn’t quite prepared for. That morning I was emailed the required health screening you have to complete before being allowed to enter the game. They were the typical questions we’ve gotten used to over the last year, have you been exposed to Covid-19 in the last 14 days, do you have a fever or any other symptoms, have you tested positive in the past 14 days, and so on. My mom  is my normal hockey buddy, and on the drive downtown she even brought up how weird it felt to be going to a game after all this time.  We got to the parking lot and it was empty. The streets were like a ghost town on the walk up to the arena doors which isn’t the norm for a 5 pm game on a Saturday.  There was no one sitting outside at the Tim Hortons attached to the arena but the guys holding the ‘Jesus Saves’ signs and preaching to all of us how we’re sinners and going to hell were still there, which was about the first normal thing of this pandemic hockey experience.  At the entrance to the arena you are now met by an usher who makes sure you have filled out the required health assessment.  You go through the metal detectors, get your tickets scanned and head up the escalators. There are no physical game day programs on the table like in pre-covid days. Once  you’re at the top of the escalators, you’re regularly met by the promo teams handing stuff out, but like you guessed, that was not the case. Instead, you’re met with emptiness.  Most of the concession stands are closed and only a few merchandise stands are set up. The arena now has specific dining areas set up because you are only allowed to eat there or at your seating pod, and your mask must be worn at all times unless you are actively eating or drinking.

Closed main concession stand at Nationwide Arena. Picture courtesy of J Laicy.

I walked into the same bathroom that I have walked into every game for the last 19 years and was met by my mom’s voice telling me I had walked into the exit door as all bathrooms now have designated entrance and exit doors.  Every other sink is closed for social distancing and there are those please stay six feet apart footsteps on the floor.

Sink closed signs at Nationwide Arena. Picture courtesy of J Laicy.

They’ve also added ‘please wash your hands’ signs on the walls. Throughout the arena, there are banners with the Covid-19 guidelines and hand sanitizing stations set up next to them.  Our infamous cannon is roped off to visitors and pictures were being taken from a distance.  The main concourse was eerily empty, almost like it is in pre-season.  When you get to your section, they have arrows on the stairs to make sure the up and down traffic stays in two separate lines. 

Covid-19 guide lines at NWA. Picture courtesy of J Laicy.
Arrows on the stairs. Picture courtesy of J Laicy.

My regular seats are closed per NHL rules so they are covered by a tarp lining.  They have also posted closed signs on the railing from about the first 6 rows down to the glass.  No one is at the glass for warm-ups except the camera guys.  Our seats were in a group of two with the seats around us zip-tied together to maintain social distance.

“Closed” seats at Nationwide Arena. Picture courtesy of J Laicy
Zip tied seat to support social distancing at Nationwide Arena. Picture courtesy of J Laicy.

That is the one thing I will say I enjoyed, not having someone sitting next to me. As a human who likes her personal space, it was kind of nice not to have to worry about who will be sitting next to me at a game.  After I sat down I think that’s when everything kind of hit me all at once. Even though I was excited to be there to cheer on the Jackets, it was kind of depressing for me too. I don’t know if it was all the covid protocols or the fact that so much has changed in a year but being in that arena just wasn’t the same. I couldn’t hang out with my hockey family, and if I tried to I felt like I’d be yelled at by one of the ushers just doing their jobs to keep in line with the safety measures. Trying to cheer and scream “shoot the puck” is weird and muffled through a face mask.  You can’t have the normal game day experiences of high-fiving your usher after a goal. Or catching a t-shirt from the shirt cannon or a pizza thrown by our mascot.

Even Stinger is in a mask, Picture courtesy of J Laicy

You can’t congregate anywhere and Jackets fans are known for our intermission meet-ups at the cannon.  And to make sure you remember all of this, video reminders are now played on the scoreboard telling you how high-fiving your fellow fan or leaving your pod results in a “penalty.”  Sure, they were clever but still a reminder of the times.  For me personally, I just couldn’t get into it and that seemed to depress me more. Everyone else was enjoying it, but for myself, I think it was a terrible reminder of how much things have changed. When you go to cheer on your team, you’re there to forget about life for three periods. You scream, you cheer, you jump around, you experience a connection with your fellow fan, you’re there to enjoy something beautiful that can’t be taken away from you. Unfortunately much like with every other part of life, Covid-19 has made the game day experience a reminder of how un-normal things are now.

Covid-19 protocol on the score board. Picture courtesy of J Laicy

CBJ on the ice for pre game warm up. Picture courtesy of J Laicy

I guess I should feel lucky or grateful I even had the opportunity to go because I know in some cities they would love to get into their arena to watch hockey in person but still aren’t allowed to. I know friends here in town who were beyond thrilled to go back to games who had a great time, but for me, the return was downright depressing and there was no way around spinning it. I trust me, I tried. When I read my first draft, I thought, gee, that’s great depress every one your first article out, way to go Jess. No matter how many times I sat down to retool my experience, I couldn’t make it something that it wasn’t.  In the end, I couldn’t change the truth and the truth was pandemic hockey is something I hope I only have to do once.

It wasn’t all bad though. It had its moments like getting to yell LEO! at the top of my lungs just before our anthem singer started to sing, getting to see and check on my hockey family was also nice, and screaming NICK FOLIGNO after he scored made it a little more normal. Oh and the Jackets won with seconds left in OT but outside of that going back in pandemic times just didn’t hit the red light for me.   

If you get the opportunity to go cheer on your team during this pandemic, promise one thing, you’ll form your own opinion on what it was like for you. That’s truly what it’s about. 

Until next time, thanks for reading! 

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