Here’s the usual timeline of attending a hockey game for a sportswriter.
You get there three or four hours early. You drop off your laptop in the pressbox. You wander around the backstage looking for someone to talk to. You have the press meal. You wander some more.
You go back up to the gondola and online shop for a while. The arena starts to fill with people. You curse the volume of the music, as well as the music.
You rearrange your stuff because the two people alongside you are nearly in your lap. You shed a layer or two because it’s warming up. Then the anthems, hockey, Stompin’ Tom, beers, cheers and all the other things we associate with old-timey Canadiana.
Here’s the COVID-19 timeline of attending the first competitive NHL hockey played in Toronto in 140 days.
You get there an hour before because they have to clear out the written media from the game before. All six of them.
That’s good because you needed that time at home to think about your wardrobe. Pants or sweatpants? Pants or sweatpants? You decide that you still have your pride and wear pants. A decision you will regret for the next several hours.
Also, you haven’t gone to work at night in a long time. You are feeling an odd, generalized anxiety – like first-day-of-school jitters. Whenever this pandemic ends, you will have to be driven from your home, rather than freed from it.
You get to the Scotiabank Arena. Most of it is fenced off and dark. It takes you 20 minutes to figure out how to get into a building you’ve entered hundreds of times.
Next, the health-check rigmarole. A paramedic points a laser thermometer at you.
“You can’t possibly be this cold,” he says.
“If you were this cold, you’d be hypothermic.”
Then he points the thermometer at himself and says, “Well. I’m fine.”
As usual, you enter an empty arena. All empty sports venues are vaguely unsettling, but this is different. They’ve tarped off the seats around the skating surface and erected projection display boards. It’s brighter. This feels like a backstage before curtain rise.
The arena is cold. Compared to outside, it is arctic. You begin adding layers.
You take your distanced seat up in the nosebleeds. They have been nice enough to supply you with NHL-branded anti-bacterial wipes.
Just in case you don’t want to use the wipes, there is an arena employee standing just a ways off holding some. He’s eyeing you. Maybe you know him? Hard to say with the mask. He keeps staring. Once you move off, he rushes in after you to sanitize everything you’ve just touched. A seat back. The railing. A concrete buttress.
You go out to get a bottle of water. One of the kiosks has been opened just for the dozen of you.
“That’ll be $3.50.”
Um, I’m just gonna go back and get my wallet (which is in your back pocket).
You retake your seat and make a note to start bringing your own water. So that you can sell it to other writers for three bucks.
Without any preamble, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens appear on the ice. They do it together because, you know, what’s the point?
There is still a portentous PA announcement in English and French. During warm-ups, it is possible there are more players on the ice than there are people in the audience watching them.
You know what’s the same? The music. The wretched music. Bad pop songs remixed so that they are even worse, played at ear-shattering volume. When I end up in hell, ‘Greatest Hits from a Generic NHL Arena’ will be the soundtrack.
The teams leave the ice and the music continues. It is broken occasionally by the sound of the Zamboni crew yelling at each other. You’ve never heard that before.
When the teams return for the anthems, there is a “moment of reflection” for Eddie Shack. This is the most silent moment of silence you have ever heard, and you’ve been there for a few. When the canned announcement ends it with, “Thank you,” the quality of silence that follows is identical.
Then there is hockey.
Even up in the second level, you can hear the players yelling at each other. This is a feature of practices, but the screaming is now more urgent, if not terribly profane. That’s a disappointment.
NHL hockey without the benefit of a screaming audience appears slower, though it can’t be.
When you think about it, a crowd is what separates elite professional sports from every other decent sort. Second-best pros are ‘nearly’ everything – nearly as fast, nearly as good. The size of the crowd is the first thing that alerts you to the difference.
If you saw the Vancouver Canucks out of uniform playing in a community rink, you’d think, ‘Wow, those guys must be in some amazing beer league.’ Without the crowd, you can’t be sure. Without the crowd, a huge amount of the magic is drained away.
Because whatever the vibe is supposed to be in an NHL arena, there is none here. Zero. After all this time off, even the players look underwhelmed.
But for now, the lack of an audience is a clear advantage for the Maple Leafs. This team has been playing without the distraction of crowd noise for decades now.
Thirty-three seconds after puck drop, the Leafs score. A lovely John Tavares-to-Ilya Mikheyev two-on-one.
Had this been any other sort of start in any other time – or, Lordy Lordy, the playoffs – you can imagine what this place would have sounded like. Rattling. The sort of noise that makes you think about structural engineering and its effectiveness.
Instead, you hear a few chirps from the ice and then the music kicks up again.