Chris Canfield has been an Arizona Coyotes season-ticket holder for several seasons. He believes there’s no better way to watch the NHL than live inside an arena. He adores the communal aspect of hockey fandom, as rows packed with friends and strangers rise up in one voice to support the team.
But on Thursday’s opening night against the San Jose Sharks, Canfield sat by himself in Gila River Arena, the seats around him zip-tied closed to create a two-seat perimeter. He was among 2,274 socially distanced fans in attendance, cheering through face coverings, as the Coyotes became the first NHL team to allow fans back in the stands since the league’s arenas were shuttered last March.
“It’s muffled, man. They still have that weird white noise thing that they have on the broadcasts pumped into the arena too,” Canfield said on what it’s like to holler through a mask. “And there were a bunch of Sharks fans there. We have dedicated Coyotes fans, but we always have transplants from other places.”
Canfield does confirm that there’s still trash talk in the time of COVID-19.
“I asked one of the Sharks fans if California knew he was at this game, and that he better not get caught on camera,” Canfield said with a laugh.
The Sharks relocated their training camp to Arizona after COVID-19 infection rates and ICU capacity forced another round of closures by Santa Clara County. The Coyotes reopened their arena — after consultation with city, county and state officials — despite Arizona’s place in the highest tier of average daily cases per day according to the CDC, a tier where California also resides.
“I’ve been very honest that we’re aware that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. We knew we can’t eliminate it. All we can do is manage it and try to mitigate it,” Coyotes CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez told ESPN.
The Coyotes are one of only three NHL teams with ticket-buying fans back in the building to begin the 2021 season, whose start was delayed until January and whose format was radically redesigned because of COVID-19. Arizona capped its capacity at 25%, or around 3,450 fans, and their first two home crowds were both under 2,400.
The Florida Panthers capped their capacity at 25% and had 4,147 fans at their home opener on Sunday. The Dallas Stars announced a 30% cap on capacity at their home games, the first of which will be played on Friday. That’s also the Stars’ first game of the season, as their first four games on the road were postponed after 17 Dallas players tested positive for COVID-19.
The NHL has been candid about getting fans back into their buildings this season. Commissioner Gary Bettman predicted before the season that teams would have “some sort of socially distant fans at some point” and then “maybe our buildings are open” later in the season. While he felt most buildings would be empty when the puck dropped on 2021, he stressed “how we start doesn’t necessarily mean how we have to finish.”
But this is how the Coyotes and others chose to start: With fans back in the building. Gutierrez has heard the counterargument to that decision. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from “Jurassic Park:” Were NHL teams so preoccupied with whether or not they could have fans, did they ever stop to think whether they should?
“We completely respect that position and understand that there are people out there that would say that. But we focus on what we can control and in the investment we made. Our approach was to say we understand it, and go about trying to create a sense of normalcy in a safe, healthy environment,” said Gutierrez.
“Here in Arizona, there are other venues that are open — shopping centers, schools. Truth be told, we look at what we were able to do here and, because of our investment and the protocols, we feel that we created an environment that’s mitigating the risk.”
Other NHL teams could have had fans for opening night, but decided they shouldn’t. At least for now.