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Watching an NHL Game in an Empty Arena

I arrived at Rogers Place at 7:30 p.m. last night. My usual parking spot, courtesy of Grand Villa Casino, wasn’t open as the building is locked down, so I parked on the back side (north side) of the arena. Parking was only $2. There were four other cars parked close to me. Right away it was clear how different last night would be.

It is impossible not to notice the vast differences in the world when you enter the north side of the arena. As I walk up to the LRT entrance, one block to my right is the Boyle Street Community Centre. I’d read online that with the extreme heat, and water fountains closed due to COVID, there was a need for bottled water for the homeless, so I brought a case of 12. I handed it to a middle aged man who was walking towards the centre as I was getting out of my vehicle. He smiled, said thank you, and as I walked to the arena I could hear him sharing the bottles. He didn’t hoard them.

It is a sobering reminder of what truly matters and how fortunate I am to have a job, a nice suit and be moments away from watching the first NHL game in Edmonton played without fans. I’m blessed.

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Security is very tight. The door to the “Pass 5” entrance is locked. A security guard is sitting inside. I show him my media pass, and he lets me in. Instantly it feels like the temperature drops 20 degrees as I step inside the air conditioned building. Thirty feet inside is the scanner. Bag, phone, car keys go in the slot in the side, and I walk through. A second security man asks to look inside my bag. “It’s good,” he says, and, maybe from fatigue or just routine he says, “you have your mask.”

It is on my face.

Another 30 feet away is the NHL registration table. Two friendly ladies say hello, ask me to use hand sanitizer and give me a new media credential after looking at the picture on my existing one to see who I am.

Then the COVID questionnaire.

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Do you have a cough?
Any trouble breathing?
Lost sense of smell or taste recently?
Have you felt tired or worn down?
Has anyone in your house tested positive?
Have you tested positive recently?

Lastly, they take my temperature. A consistent 35.6. Every day when tested before entering the Oilers practice in recent weeks my temperature ranged between 35.5 and 35.8. It is comforting to know nothing has changed.

I’m granted access and escorted up an escalator and then to the elevator, which takes me up to the seventh floor. Only two media people are allowed in an elevator at one time.

The regular press box is on the eighth floor, so I’m actually one floor closer to the ice for these playoffs, as the eighth floor is being used by the NHL.

There is assigned seating, and our seats are on the drink rail at the top of the second deck, for those who have been inside Rogers. There are three seats in each section, stationed about eight feet apart, and no one sat in the two spots directly to my right. Daniel Nugent-Bowman from the Athletic sits on the edge of the section to my left. He is wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt. Rookie mistake. Rogers Place is usually a bit chilly with the building full, but with no fans, and 28 degrees celsius outside, the AC is turned up even more.

It is cold, but I wonder if it feels colder because I’ve never been in this arena on a beautifully hot July evening. I jokingly ask Daniel if he is cold. “I will bring a jacket next time,” he laughs.

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It is now 7:40 p.m. One hour from puck drop.

There are four people putting finishing touches on the ice and rink boards. Warmup starts in 30 minutes. The arena looks completely different with tarps in the lower bowl and a concert-like light screen assembled in each end of the arena, and massive big screens. With no fans in attendance, the netting above the end boards is gone.

There are no game notes, lineup cards or stats sheets printed out. The NHL is limiting anything that will be touched by numerous people. They are digital now.

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WARM UP…

Mikko Koskinen leads the Oilers onto the ice for warmup, usually a sign of who will start. Philip Broberg enters the ice for his first game with NHL players and Patrick Russell will be the 13th forward over Joakim Nygard. Broberg is playing because Caleb Jones is banged up and Dave Tippett wanted Broberg to experience the NHL, in case they need him in the playoffs.

Warmup is the normal routine, but the players are looking around the building more than usual. This is a first for them as well. The teams leave the ice.

Four minutes to puck drop and the technicians are testing the sound and lighting.

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To add to the strangeness of tonight, the Oilers are the visiting team. The Calgary Flames are the home team, and when they skate onto the ice they are welcomed by a recording of their home ice announcer, “Welcome, your Calgary Flaaaamess,” as they skate to the ice.

This happened in Edmonton. The wonders never cease in 2020.

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GAME TIME…

The game begins and the Kailer Yamamoto scores 64 seconds in, burying a juicy rebound off of Cam Talbot’s pads.

The Oilers go up 2-0 when Connor McDavid scores on the power play. The Oilers PP ends up 1-for-4 on the night, and their precision passing creating high-end scoring chances was identical to when we saw them last in March. Their PP will win them a game or two in the playoffs.

Midway through the first period Zack Kassian crushes Erik Gustaffson with a clean, hard hit and knocks his helmet off. Gustafsson doesn’t leave the ice and actually plays the puck without his helmet on. The Oilers go back on the PP, but don’t score.

Late in the first period James Neal delivers a hearty slash to the backside of Mathew Tkachuk and a small scrum ensues. “Nealer, you f***ing p*^*y,” can be heard clear as day from a player on the Flames bench. The Flames go on the powerplay. I can hear a lot of what is said on the ice. Referee Kelly Sutherland is very vocal, in a good way. You can hear how he interacts with the players, sometimes warning them about not being too overzealous with their sticks while battling in front of the net.

Broberg looks a bit overwhelmed, which is to be expected. It is his first NHL action and guaranteed he is nervous. He settles down as the game progresses.

Edmonton controls the first period outshooting the Flames 16-9, including 12-5 at 5×5.

Mikko Koskinen looks very calm and poised in goal.

Second Frame…

After Edmonton dominates the first period, Calgary controls the second. Koskinen and Talbot are replaced by Mike Smith and David Rittich with 10:02 remaining in the period. The score is still 2-0.

With seven minutes remaining, another scrum ensues as Josh Archibald, Zac Rinaldo and Micheal Stone are assessed rouging penalties, and Gaetan Haas gets a high sticking call. In the penalty box Rinaldo yells to Archibald, “Don’t do that. I’ll hurt f***ing hurt you. You know I can.”

NHL talk isn’t much different than midget, junior or even men’s leagues. Guys get mad, yell or say things to the opposing team in frustration or intimidation. It isn’t a surprise, but it is quite entertaining getting to hear all the chirps. I’m waiting for mild mannered players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Connor McDavid to say something. They don’t say much, but when the intensity rises during the playoffs it is natural for more players to start beaking. It will be great.

Broberg saves a goal as he blocks a shot with Smith out of the net. The entire Oilers bench erupts with numerous, “Great block Bro (his nickname),” or “Atta boy Bro.” The youngster has settled down after an expected shaky start.

Edmonton only manages two shots in the final 10 minutes, and Calgary dominates the middle stanza outshooting the Oilers 16-7. They are rewarded with a late power play goal by Elias Lindholm.

The DJ is cranking some great tunes during stoppages including one of my new favourite songs, Roses, by SAINt JHN. Too bad no fans are here to experience the uptick in music choices.

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Nothing happens during intermission. There is no snack table. I miss the veggie plate and the pizza that was served on the media floor after the second period. But my waistline is happy the pizza isn’t around.

Third Frame…

Calgary continues to control the play and Smith makes some key saves. His best was robbing Sam Bennett on a two-on-one with Dillon Dube.

One of the newest additions to fanless hockey is the JITACAM. It gives you the new above the ice angle. As you can see the boom swings out over the ice, and it can swing back and down for a more intimate side look of the game. It will capture more of the speed of the game.

Calgary was pressing and Edmonton hadn’t done much, but then they scored two goals in 35 seconds. Patrick Russell knocked home a rebound, and then assisted on McDavid’s second goal of the night. Sadly for Russell this goal will not count on any career stats page as this was an exhibition game.

The Oilers bench give Rittich a bronx cheer after he can’t handle the bouncing puck which led directly to Russell’s goal.

There is a clear dislike between these two teams, and even from the seventh floor I was able to hear some of the conversations and pleasantries quite clearly.

Oilers win 4-1.

FINAL THOUGHTS…

After the game, the media stay on the seventh floor and walk to the south end of the arena where the NHL has set up two temporary interview places, one for each team. There is a microphone that you stand in front of to ask your question. You look into the camera, because the players are seated at a table in a makeshift media room where they can see you on a big screen. Reporters who aren’t in the building can ask questions via zoom.

I understand why this format is in place. It makes sense, but it is also a reminder of how rigid and robotic the interview becomes. When you are face to face with a player, often you have time to talk about things before the interview starts. There is no small talk before or after and often you learn some great tidbits of information during those informal conversations.

It is life in 2020, but I look forward to when all of society is able to interact with each other in a more personal matter.

It was a very surreal experience watching an NHL game with no fans, very little cheering, no TV timeout contests, no kiss-cam (okay, I didn’t miss that) and just the overall excitement and energy that comes from 18,000 rabid fans watching a hockey game.

The lack of noise allowed me to hear more of what was being said on the ice, as well as the skates carving into the ice or passes hitting sticks so you got a more intimate feel of the game, but no question the game is much more fun with fans.

Let’s hope we can return to that early next season, but after watching last night I’m even more excited for the playoffs to begin.  Hockey is back, and after watching the game on TV this morning, I liked how it looked. It was different, but not disappointing.

Now the big question that we will discuss for the next three days: Who starts in goal?

Koskinen and Smith played well. Does the fact Koskinen started make you think he gets the nod on Saturday? For months I thought Dave Tippett would go with Smith in game one, but now I’m thinking it will be Koskinen based on him starting and his play.

RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR