‘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.