Chris Johnston: ‘It’s just not the same.’ NHL players hungry for return of fans and full arenas


Tyler Toffoli’s maiden season in Montreal included an unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup final and saw him score goals and points at a higher rate than any previous year during his NHL career.

And still there was something lacking about the experience.

“It was kind of sh–ty to be honest, with no fans,” Toffoli said recently. “The way everything was was unfortunate, but I just went with it.”

With training camps set to open this week on a 2021-22 NHL season that will see a return to the previous divisional alignment and an 82-game schedule, Toffoli is “excited for it to go back to normal.”

He’s far from alone. Basically every one of his 12 Canadian-based peers that participated in the player media tour in Toronto last week expressed the same sentiment. And who among us everyday citizens can’t relate to the desire for a return to normalcy right now?

The only problem is that normal likely isn’t walking back through that door just yet.

That’s especially true for the seven NHL teams based north of the border that are currently planning for arenas that could range from five-per-cent to 100-per-cent full when regular-season games start next month.

As an example of how fluid everything remains, the Toronto Maple Leafs are scheduled to host Montreal in their exhibition opener on Saturday night and still don’t know how many fans will be permitted inside Scotiabank Arena. The organization believes it will be capable of safely returning to full capacity by the end of the year with the help of vaccination mandates, as the Star’s Kevin McGran reported Monday, but provincial regulations currently only allow for a cap of 1,000 people indoors.

That could be increased before the end of the week, according to sources, posing a logistical challenge when the time leading up to the exhibition opener can already be measured in hours. Both the Leafs and Ottawa Senators have elected to sell tickets at full capacity for the first segment of the season with the understanding that they may need to provide refunds depending on decisions made by the province.

The fact we’re talking about any fans at all stands as an improvement on the hollow 2021 season. It wasn’t until the playoffs before an extremely limited number of spectators were able to pay to attend an NHL game in Canada and it took a toll on the players.

The Toronto Maple Leafs believe they will be capable of safely returning to full capacity at Scotiabank Arena by the end of the year with the help of vaccination mandates.

“That’s one thing that I was disappointed in,” said Pierre-Luc Dubois, acquired by the Winnipeg Jets from Columbus in a January trade. “One of the biggest upsides of Winnipeg is the fans and all that.”

“It’s just not the same,” said Ottawa Senators forward Tim Stützle. “If you have a bad game you really, really have a bad game and you feel like sh–. It’s just terrible without the fans. I couldn’t be more excited to have fans back in the building cheering for us.”

The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Jets are expecting to start the season at 100-per-cent capacity, although that’s still subject to change. Alberta declared a state of public health emergency last week following a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The biggest challenge facing the Jets is the financial impact of the pandemic which saw some local businesses bankrupted and has forced the organization into selling walk-up tickets and mini-packs like never before.

British Columbia’s provincial health authority currently has the Vancouver Canucks capped at 50-per-cent capacity while Quebec is limiting the Canadiens to 7,500 fans — or roughly 35 per cent of a full house.

Beyond the in-arena experience, players can expect something closer to normal because of more flexible protocols governing their movements. Those who are vaccinated will be allowed to dine in restaurants or visit bars after being restricted to eating at their hotels during road trips last season. PCR tests will be administered every 72 hours rather than every day.

“We were kind of joking around: If you can get through last year you get through just about anything,” said Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, who was part of a late-season COVID outbreak that decimated the team.

There is still concern about the possibility of an outbreak that could disrupt the schedule. Even with 99 per cent of the player population expected to be fully vaccinated by next month, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association negotiated a Jan. 10 opt-out that allows them to withdraw from the Beijing Olympics without penalty, if needed.

That will be triggered in the event those days are needed to get in a full season.

Above all, this NHL campaign is about getting as many paying customers back in the buildings as possible and doing meaningful business again.

It’s about restoring the enthusiasm that was missing last year.

“Some of those games, I’d be going out and (Brendan Gallagher) would be like ‘If this was a (normal) season our room would be literally shaking right now. You would open the doors and everything would be extremely loud and you’d be shaking and you’d be nervous,”’ said Toffoli. “I was just like ‘Damn, I kind of want that feeling.”’

We all do. There’s just no guarantee it’ll return as soon as we’d like.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based independent journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris


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