The Boston Bruins last played in front of a capacity crowd nearly one year ago in their 3-0 triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center. On Friday, they took the Madison Square Garden ice in front of a socially distant New York Rangers fanbase.
Come March 23; the Bruins will have a limited capacity of their supporters at TD Garden when they host the New York Islanders.
Every player in the sporting world misses the jubilation of a live crowd. They’ll tell you about things feeling off playing in front of empty crowds with piped-in crowd noise.
Yet, as conditions improve slowly but surely thanks to the COVID vaccine, we’re still a ways off from embracing normal everyday life, let alone watching teams perform in sold-out sporting venues. Because of that, Brandon Carlo didn’t envision the Bruins having a significant adjustment period from no fans at all to a limited number of spectators.
“I think it will pretty much be similar,” Carlo said before Boston’s latest three-game road trip. “There are people walking around the rink as we’re playing — whether it’s staff or officials from the NHL. I’m not sure how it will look, I’m sure people will be pretty spread out. I’m sure the noise will be a little different after goals scored and goals against, but that’s the only adjustment I can see going forward with that. But I’m really excited that it’s happening. We love the fans, and we miss them a lot, so that will be a fun adjustment.”
Carlo’s expectations became reality on Friday. The Rangers spread their crowd of roughly 1,800 fans all throughout the World’s Most Famous Arena. Everyone in attendance followed protocols from the pre-event screening to mask-wearing and obtaining social distance guidelines.
It didn’t have the same vibe as a sold-out crowd. But players noticed the fan interactions typical of an NHL game, be it with a goal celebration, a big save, a fight, or a post-whistle altercation.
“It was great. You can definitely tell those energy moments when you score a goal on either side of things,” Carlo said at Tuesday’s practice, two days after a much-needed 4-1 win by the Bruins. “For us, we wanted to score the first goal to get the fans out of it, but you can also gain a lot of energy.”
This isn’t anything new for the league per se. A handful of cities welcomed fans throughout the season, mostly in southern climates like Dallas, Tampa and Sunrise, Fla. The Bruins, Rangers, Devils and Islanders all announced their intentions of opening their home arenas over the last few weeks.
Bruce Cassidy’s bunch still faces some unusual times. They’ll welcome Zdeno Chara back to TD Garden on Wednesday with only staff and select media attending the upcoming Bruins-Capitals matchup. But it won’t be long until they welcome a few loyal supporters back to Causeway St.
“It’s huge. So excited obviously,” forward Sean Kuraly said last week on WEEI’s Greg Hill Morning Show. “I think it’s only 1,500 or 2,000, but I think we’ve all got that circled. Some of us were talking about that at breakfast this morning, that we’ve had that circled on the calendar. We even got a text about possibly having friends or family — actually, it had to be family — come to the game, so that was a nice text to send some family. Obviously, it’s the first time in almost a year.”
“I’m so excited to feel that again in Boston,” Carlo added. “It’s like no other rink, honestly. We have such great fans. It’s a lot of fun to play in those big moments in front of fans and embrace those opportunities alongside them. I’m really excited. I’m happy it’s starting to progress. Even though it’s a small number right now, it does make a big difference.”
Moving up in the re-opening phase provided plenty of debate. The decline in COVID cases and deaths and the vaccine rollout — albeit shaky — provide reasons for optimism. But even a slow progression provides a risk of another outbreak.
Only science will dictate the return of normalcy. The Bruins remain thankful just to even get these games in. Now they hope this phase will lead to another step toward a full TD Garden.
“We’re definitely looking forward to it. We all talked about how nice it’s going to be to have fans back. It makes a big difference,” captain Patrice Bergeron said. “Obviously, you have to go into the buildings to realize how big of an influence and an impact they have on games. It’s just a fact.”
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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