How NHL arenas are welcoming hockey fans back

NHL News

Normalcy is a relative term for NHL arenas this season.

Of its 32 buildings, the league expects 31 of them to begin the season at full capacity, with the Vancouver Canucks the current outliers. (They’re restricted to 50% capacity by provincial health orders.) Just like “normal,” fans will be filling NHL arenas again. It’s just going to be a different experience for many of them — depending on the city.

At last count, 22 buildings will require fans to wear masks, although some only for unvaccinated attendees, and 16 will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

Most arenas are following state and local guidance on COVID protocols. Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Rangers, mandates that every fan age 12 or older provide proof of COVID vaccination. That includes having had at least one dose of a vaccine prior to attending. Fans who aren’t fully vaccinated will need to wear a mask while inside the venue, as will those ages 2 to 11, except while actively eating or drinking. Much of this echoes what New York City has mandated for indoor group activities.

The division rival Pittsburgh Penguins play just two states over, but might as well be in another world. COVID mitigation measures have been lifted in Pennsylvania. PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh will not require fans to be vaccinated or tested, and masks are not mandatory.

“We know we’re not the experts. We don’t pretend to be. We rely on the experts, and they give us guidance,” David Morehouse, president and CEO of the Penguins, told ESPN. “Last season, that guidance allowed us to increase our percentages as the [local COVID] numbers went down, to the point where if we had won Game 6 against the Islanders — and this is a very sore spot you’ve reopened — we would have had 100% capacity with masks.”

Instead, they’ll open the 2021-22 season at that capacity.

Some teams are going beyond what their localities are currently mandating. While other teams in Seattle are recommending full vaccination or a negative test for entrance, the expansion Kraken will require fans age 12 and older to be fully vaccinated to attend games in their inaugural season — although there are medical and religious exceptions. Fans under 12 can attend as long as they are masked while not actively eating or drinking.

Washington state would only allow the Kraken 75% arena capacity without the vaccine mandate. Needless to say, the Kraken were compelled to maximize capacity in their first year.

“We had to take a holistic approach to this. It’s not just fans from Washington state. We have fans coming in from other states and Canada. We heard positives coming out of our fans. We had fans asking us for this,” said Don Graham of Oak View Group, who is the assistant general manager for Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena.

In Nashville, there are no current blanket COVID restrictions. But the Nashville Predators and Bridgestone Arena opted for their own policy: All guests age 12 or older will be required to show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR or antigen test administered by a health-care professional at least 72 hours prior to events at the arena.

Fans under 12 will be permitted to enter Bridgestone Arena if they wear a mask at all times while inside the venue, or if they have proof of a negative COVID test. Masks for all fans are recommended but not mandated.

“Our policy is above and beyond [local protocols], actually,” Sean Henry, president and CEO of the Predators, told ESPN. “There’s no consistency across the state, or even in our own city. And we had shows coming in and telling us what they wanted to do [for fan entry]. That’s when we realized that the best protocols are consistent protocols, so we decided to overlay everyone’s requests into one protocol.”

A few weeks ago, the Predators signed a deal with Clear Health Pass, a mobile app that houses COVID vaccination and test information and includes a fan education component. There’s also an enticement for fans to use the app, as the Predators’ partnership can give season-ticket holders a few free months of Clear airport access. They’re one of at least five NHL teams that will be using Clear this season.

Eight teams will have vaccine status built into their mobile apps. The Kraken are one of them.

“We want to make sure everything is seamless — to make it as much of a one-stop shop as possible,” Graham said. “If we can’t get there for opening night, then we’ll have a process where you get checked prior to the doors and then you go to the doors and are able to scan your ticket.”

At least 11 teams require a physical card to prove vaccination, although some will also accept proof via an app or digital passport.

After deciding on a policy and a way to check vaccine status, now comes the tough part for the Predators and other teams: Selling it to the fans.

Not for ‘the unicorns’

The Predators have one of the most fervent fan bases in the U.S. They were over capacity on average in the 2019-20 season, with 17,407 tickets distributed for home games, seventh in the league.

Henry knew that some fans would be put off by the new policy. There would be unvaccinated fans who refuse to acquiesce in order to attend games. There would be others who believe that the COVID policy didn’t go far enough, asking for things such as social-distancing measures inside the building.

“You build protocols for the masses, and not the individual unicorns. And that goes for both sides,” Henry said.

“Let’s say you get 10 emails or calls a day. Literally three are calling to clarify [the policy]. Of the other calls, half are people saying they can’t come to the game because the protocols aren’t strict enough, and half are saying they aren’t coming because they’re too strict,” he said.

The Predators were faced with a decision: either dig in their heels against some of their most loyal customers or find a way to work with them during these unprecedented times.

“We’ve given them a lot of options,” Henry said.

He said most fans who don’t want to attend games this season because of COVID protocols have decided to toll their season tickets for a full year, hoping the protocols are eased or eliminated by the 2022-23 NHL season.

“We’ve told them that’s fine, but if you do change your mind during the year, you’re still an active season-ticket holder,” he said.

The Predators are giving fans the option of reactivating their season tickets if they decide to attend games again, either by getting vaccinated or by coming to peace with the protocols. “It might just not be in your exact seats until next season,” he said.

Henry said “very, very few” of his season-ticket holders have asked for full refunds. “When I say ‘few,’ I’m talking single digits,” he said.

Some have chosen to take a refund only through Nov. 15, which is when the Predators said they’ll reevaluate their current COVID protocols.

A tale from the AHL: ‘Covid’s the problem. Not Syracuse’

Howard Dolgon knew there would be a backlash. He didn’t necessarily think hockey fans would use virulent terms to describe his approach.

Dolgon owns the Syracuse Crunch, the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. On Sept. 3, the Crunch became the first U.S.-based team in the league to require that fans ages 12 and up must be fully vaccinated against COVID to attend home games at Upstate Medical University Arena. Fans with a medical exception will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Everyone in attendance must still wear a mask in accordance with current Onondaga County regulations.

“We were being called communists. We were being called fascists. It was crazy,” Dolgon told ESPN. “The No. 1 priority for us was keep our community safe. The answer was to control the situation where only vaccinated people are allowed in. There’s no argument that it’s the safest environment. It’s just not the easiest environment because you’re going to tick off people.”

He said he received calls from other AHL owners after enacting the policy. “The first thing they want to know is what kind of feedback I’ve gotten. In other words, how much money I’ve had to refund,” said Dolgon.

The Crunch predicted the team would lose 50 season-ticket holders out of a pool of 2,100. The tally as of mid-September: 50 season tickets, although two customers canceled because they were moving out of the area.

“We had a lot of loud voices on the internet. People who claimed they were canceling their season tickets … who didn’t have them,” Dolgon said. “But as the days went by and people stopped canceling their tickets, we started hearing from the silent majority who thanked us for [the policy] and said they’d now start going to the games and would bring their kids. Those people were really on the fence. The majority of the people who are vaccinated and wanted to be in a safer environment were waiting for us to announce the policy before they renewed their tickets.”

While many fans were happy to see the mandate, the Crunch — and other teams — have had to say goodbye to some loyal season-ticket holders over the vaccine policy.

“I was so angry to think I could be forced to do something that I don’t want to do to my body,” said Kathleen Hallahan, a Crunch fan and season-ticket holder for 15 years.

Bob Hallahan, 58, has had four season tickets to Crunch games, costing his family around $2,000 annually. He said they spend much more inside the arena each season on concessions and memorabilia.

He said he contracted COVID last November. “For five days I was in agonizing pain. It felt like a truck ran over me. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t go to the bathroom. This went on for the better part of two weeks. I finally went to the hospital,” he said.

The physicians put two IVs in his arm and pumped him full of antibiotics. They said he was starting to develop pneumonia before his immune system rallied.

“I wanted to get the vaccine because I didn’t want to go through that again. Ever,” he said.

Bob Hallahan and his son have been vaccinated against COVID. His wife, Kathleen, didn’t contract the virus and doesn’t intend to get vaccinated.

He figured that while his wife wouldn’t attend, he and his son could go to Crunch games this season. But once Syracuse announced that its COVID policy would make masks mandatory, even though fans were fully vaccinated, Bob Hallahan started wondering if he’d opt out too.

“I don’t like wearing the mask,” he said, adding that as a pilot he’s required to wear one for long flights.

“I understand if you’re not vaccinated — they banned my wife from going because she doesn’t want to get the vaccine. But if you’re like me, who still has the antibodies and has both shots, I don’t see the reason why I have to wear a mask,” he said. “And to cheer in a hockey game with a mask on … I’m not a goalie, so I’m not wearing a mask. We support the team very generously. We have for 15 years. When it came out with this mandate, it’s a tough call.”

Like the Predators, the Crunch are giving season-ticket holders options this season. “We’ve told them all that we’re selling their tickets two weeks at a time. If they decide they’re going to get vaccinated and we know when, they can get their seats back,” said Dolgon.

Dolgon is transparent about the Crunch’s vaccine policy. He wanted to keep his fans safe. He wanted to increase arena capacity — like the Kraken, the Crunch would have had to reduce it unless there was a vaccine mandate. But he also wanted to use his platform, and the excitement of live hockey, as a way to entice the unvaccinated to get the jab.

“As a team in a community, especially a smaller community, you mean something to people. You’re going to take collateral damage when you take a stand. That’s just the reality of it. But we know we need to do these things. You hope you have an audience that respects you and supports you. So maybe they’ll listen to what you say,” he said.

“These season-ticket holders make the biggest commitment — 38 home games, and the majority of them are going to two-thirds or more of them themselves. It saddens them that they can’t come,” said Dolgon. “Hopefully they’ll miss hockey. They’ll realize getting the vaccination is the safest thing to do. And they’ll be back. We want them back. We’ll welcome them back.”

The Hallahans don’t take the policy personally. Kathleen said she still intends to follow the Crunch from afar. Bob hopes to return to their seats if and when the mask policy changes.

“COVID’s the problem. Not Syracuse,” he said.

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