‘A continuation of bubble hockey’: The NHL game experience in 2021

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Last month, PHT writers Sean Leahy and Marisa Ingemi covered games during the first month of the 2020-21 NHL season. This season most of the league’s arenas will not allow fans in, and both wanted to experience what it was like to witness a game in that environment.

Islanders 1, Bruins 0
Jan. 18, 2021 – Nassau Coliseum
By Sean Leahy

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The pregame sounds of preparation were gone. Walking through the media entrance at Gate 5 of Nassau Coliseum, I quickly noticed how much quieter it was on the concourse compared to a normal Islanders game.

As I’d enter about 90 minutes before puck drop, the sounds of carts filled with concessions moving about and employees setting up the concourse would be noticeable on my way to the press box elevator. 

That was also different. Media, including the television and radio broadcasters, are positioned on the track that separates the upper and lower bowls of the Coliseum. Gone was the excellent perch above in a rink with one of the best views in NHL. Once you’re inside the rink, however, there are those familiar sights, like the various Islanders’ banners from their 1980s dominance. Even Billy Joel’s sold out shows banner still hangs. 

What did stand out, as we’re accustomed to now, were the covered lower bowl seats featuring messages and sponsor ads. As we got to within an hour of the Islanders and Bruins start time, there were no fans filing into the building making their way to their seats along the glass for warmups.

That’s when this new experience of live sports really hit me. The Islanders-Bruins game was the first sporting event I’d attended since the pandemic began, so when warmups began the normal energy that enters the air was absent. There were no signs against the glass. No fans begging for a puck. No excitement about this being both the first hockey game at the Coliseum since March 7 and the final home opener before the team moves into UBS Arena next season.

Nassau Coliseum is a building where it will shake during the best of times and you’ll hear the displeasure in the air and nothing else during the worst of times. 

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Fan-less arenas take time to get used to. The playoff bubble experience prepped us for this, but those were neutral sites for 22 of the 24 teams. Now, players are in their own rinks as we all wait for our world to get back to whatever the next phase of “normal” will look like.

The Islanders got an immediate taste of that to begin their season. Games against the Rangers are always lively, on the ice and in the crowd. So when the puck dropped at Madison Square Garden for the first game, it was a major adjustment.

“It’s quiet in there. It’s always hopping,” said Islanders head coach Barry Trotz. “It’s always Saturday night in the Garden. And when the Rangers and Islanders are playing, we could be playing at 7 a.m. with a full building and the place is going crazy. 

“It is a different experience. I think this whole season is way different than the bubble. You had the excitement of the playoffs and the teams rolling around, all that. This is different. It’s a new experience for everybody. You’ve got to bring your own sense of emotion, your own game every night. You’re not going to get any help from the atmosphere. You’re not. This is a different effect.”

The only fans seated inside Nassau Coliseum for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee against Bruins were the cardboard cutouts positioned behind both goals in the lower bowl. When it was game on, a low murmur of atmosphere was played with crowd noise reacting — sometimes in a delayed manner — to the on-ice action, whether it was a scoring chance, penalty, or goal.

And when a goal did happen, thanks J.G. Pageau, it was a normal experience for the game operations crew. The horn blared, Joe Satriani’s “Crowd Chant” played, and the woo!’s arrived. The only thing missing were Islanders fans with the Yes! Yes! Yes! chant to end the celebrations.

There is still somewhat of a home-ice advantage despite visitors not having to try to communicate over loud crowds. Players get to sleep in their own beds and home teams still get last line change. For the Islanders, they are used to the no-fan experience following their run to the Eastern Conference Final in the summer. They’re comfortable with it and, according to Cal Clutterbuck, they see it as “a continuation of bubble hockey.”

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Bruins 5, Flyers 4 (SO)
Jan. 21, 2021 – TD Garden
By Marisa Ingemi

BOSTON — If anyone thought trying to get to the Bruins press box was an adventure before now there are three new areas to figure out.

The Garden is historically really cold; yes, all hockey rinks are cold on account of the ice, but anyone who has covered a game in Boston will tell you it gets freezing. Less people in the building to warm it up made it colder. Wear a coat.

In the days after the Bruins home opener against the Flyers it seems they’ve tried to bring back some more of the old fan interactives, such as the helmet shuffle on the video board, but the initial vibes were really weird, to say the least.

Anthem singer Todd Angilly performed on a pre-recorded video that showed on the video board but wasn’t at the arena. The crowd noise pumped in was inconsistent, louder at times and sometimes non-reactive to what was happening on the ice.

The strangest thing during the opener was when the Bruins players took the ice to the traditional lineup introductions for the opener, with the same canned audio for each player.

Typically, the Patrice Bergerons and Tuukka Rasks of the world would get the loudest cheers — especially with Bergeron playing in his first home game as captain — but this was the same exact audio played for each skater.

TD Garden is typically one of the most rambunctious arenas in sports, especially when the Bruins play. Not hearing some random dude yelling “shoot!” while the Bruins don’t even have the puck is certainly missed.

It’s a weird vibe all around at every empty hockey arena in the league, but a silent TD Garden when the Bruins win in a shootout is one of the strangest.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.