From the Fortress to the Garden, NHL starting to welcome back fans

After a year that felt more like a millennium, several NHL teams are saying goodbye to empty arenas as they prepare to open their doors back up to fans.

The return brings about feelings of nostalgia. Players will once again get to feed off the energy of a crowd, heed reminders to “shoot the puck” and see their names on the back of jerseys that fill the stands.

“At this time, we have to respect the protocols, we have to respect the safety of the fans and players and everyone working at these facilities is the most important thing,” Capitals defenseman Zdeno Chara said. “Yeah, it would be great to have fans at the arenas and cheering us on and experience these energy swings during games.”

Here’s where each NHL team currently stands when it comes to welcoming back their respective fan bases.

East Division

Buffalo Sabres: New York state allowed the reopening of large stadiums and arenas on Feb. 23 with protocols. Buffalo will open Keybank Center to fans for select home games starting on March 20.

Boston Bruins: Beantown will see a limited amount of fans return to TD Garden when the Bruins are able to play again. Their originally scheduled game on March 23 against the Islanders, which was to be the first a 12% capacity, has been postponed.

New York Islanders: The Isles welcomed back 1,000 Northwell Health frontline workers on March 11 and officially brought season ticket holders back to Nassau Coliseum on March 18.

New York Rangers: The Blueshirts were the first N.Y. team to host a crowd this season. On Feb. 26, Madison Square Garden saw about 2,000 fans return for the first time since the season came to a pause in March 2020.

New Jersey Devils: N.J. governor Phil Murray gave the go-ahead for venues with a seating capacity of 5,000 or more to operate at 10% capacity in March. The Devils brought back fans with strict protocols in place, and within 48 hours of tickets, they sold out their first eight home games at Prudential Center. New Jersey hosted an audience for the first time in nearly a year on March 2 in a 2-1 loss to the Isles.

[MORE: Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Pittsburgh Penguins: PPG Paints Arena opened its doors to fans to kick off the month of March, with the team requiring all spectators to wear masks at all times unless eating or drinking. However, Pittsburgh faces controversy after the team admitted to photoshopping masks onto fans in a social media photo to hide COVID-19 violations. Seventeen people were also ejected for not wearing masks inside.

Philadelphia Flyers: Gritty’s followers now have a place at Wells Fargo Center, as the venue started hosting fans on March 7 at 15% capacity (about 3,100 people) with COVID-19 protocols in place.

Washington Capitals: Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the group that owns the Caps, submitted a request to the city of D.C. to safely allow fans back into Capital One Arena, per the Washington Post’s Samantha Pell. There’s no return date set in stone, but the team is a step closer.

West Division

Arizona Coyotes: The Yotes were the first NHL team to welcome back fans for a home game in 2021. Local authorities allowed Arizona to open Gila River Arena to 3,450 fans (about 25% capacity) for the team’s season opener in the desert on Jan. 14.

Vegas Golden Knights: As part of Nevada’s 75-day reopening plan, the Vegas Golden Knights are welcoming faithful back to The Fortress and operating at 15% capacity (around 2,600 people). The Knights’ first home game with fans was on March 1, marking the first time in 363 days that T-Mobile Arena hosted fans. Vegas treated them to a show, rewarding their patience with a 5-4 overtime victory over the Minnesota Wild.

Minnesota Wild: Right now, only players’ families and select staff are allowed to attend games. However, the team announced that in early March, Minnesota will allow 40 “true fans” to sit in the Bud Light Top Shelf Lounge on the club level. Where it stands, only 250 people are currently allowed in the arena.

Colorado Avalanche: Ball Arena has received approval from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to begin hosting 4,050 fans (22% capacity) beginning April 2.

St. Louis Blues: Starting on Feb. 2, the team announced that Enterprise Center will open its doors to a limited amount of fans, along with frontline workers, families and friends of players, staff, employees and essential personnel. In total, St. Louis has increased attendance to 1,400.

Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks: There’s no update yet on whether or not California’s teams will get to fill their stands anytime soon.

Central Division

Carolina Hurricanes: Fans can now take warning with the team indoors. PNC Arena is operating at 15% capacity and opened back up on March 4 for Carolina’s game vs. Detroit.

Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago hasn’t made any decisions surrounding United Center at this time. However, per the Parkins and Spiegel Show, it was reported that the Hawks and Chicago Bulls could welcome fans back at 10-15% capacity in April, pending approval from the city.

[NHL Power Rankings: Hurricanes, Isles climb with winning streaks]

Columbus Blue Jackets: Fire the cannon: fans are back at Nationwide Arena. Columbus first announced its plan to operate at 10% capacity on Feb. 11 after receiving approval from the State of Ohio. On March 2, a year and a day since the team last hosted spectators– 18,378 to be exact – the Jackets welcomed back 1,953 spectators.

Dallas Stars: A COVID-19 outbreak for the team at the start of the 2020-21 campaign hasn’t impacted their plan to welcome back Stars faithful. American Airlines Center currently allows 4,200 fans and has taken several steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, including selling tickets as part of socially-distanced pod seating groups.

Detroit Red Wings: Hockeytown’s residents are coming back slowly and surely. The home opener saw 250 fans allowed in the arena (mainly team personnel family and friends) before that number was expanded to 500 on Jan. 30. Michigan’s eased restrictions allowed Little Caesar’s to open doors to an additional 250 people in March.

Florida Panthers: Sunrise decided that the team would host fans at 25% capacity before the puck even dropped on the 2020-21 campaign. Nearly 5,000 people can fill the stands at BB&T Center, which has several safety measures in place and “became the first NHL hockey arena to achieve the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) WELL Health-Safety Rating.” It’s a good thing for the Cats, who are off to one of their best starts in years.

Nashville Predators: The Metro Public Health Department gave the Preds the green light for 15% capacity at the start of the year, but Nashville elected to wait. Then, on Jan. 26, Smashville welcomed back fans with open arms and put on quite the show, snapping a three-game skid with a 3-2 overtime victory over Chicago.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The defending Stanley Cup champions brought back a crowd on March 13 after Vinik Sports Group, the Bolts’ parent company, announced it will allow up to 3,800 spectators into Amalie Arena. Tampa made it a night to remember, as the Bolts finally raised their 2020 Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters, sharing that moment with their fans.

North Division

It appears the nation of Canada is playing things safe, with no spectators allowed for any Canadian teams so far. It may be for the best, with the Canucks currently in the throes of a major COVID-19 outbreak following relatively little to no interference from the pandemic to start the season for the North.

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    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

    NEW COACHES

    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

    CAMP TRYOUTS

    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

    EARLY START

    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

    Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

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    CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

    He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

    And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

    “The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

    With that, Barkov was sold.

    And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

    “We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

    Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

    He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

    “The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

    As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

    “I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

    BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

    Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

    He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

    “I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

    CAMP ROSTER

    Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.