SUNRISE — After playing their first three weeks of the season in empty venues — including six home games at Amalie Arena — this past week marked the Lightning’s first games in front of a limited-capacity crowd.
After playing two games in Nashville in front of small crowds, this weekend’s two-game series against the Panthers offered eager Lightning fans one of their first chances to watch the defending Stanley Cup champions play in person.
The Panthers are one of just three NHL teams to open the season with fans, filling the BB&T Center to about 25 percent capacity or roughly 4,000 socially-distanced fans. The Lightning had planned to do the same, but four days before the season began, the team changed course amid spiking coronavirus cases in the Tampa Bay area.
The atmosphere inside the BB&T Center feels largely hollow compared to pre-pandemic game nights. The seating bowl consists of mostly empty red seats, many of them taped off to create social distanced pods. There’s very little traffic along the concourse. It’s clear that the arena sound system is pumping in crowd noise to compensate.
“It feels like we’re here three hours early, except the game is going on right now,” said Steve Forchielli, who made the four-hour drive down to South Florida with husband Cruz Goetze from their Port Tampa home to watch the Lightning play. “It’s very quiet. It’s a little weird. It’s definitely something to get used to but it’s something, let’s deal with it this year. We’re keeping our masks on and we’ll deal with it. It’s been almost a year since our last game. Even though we’re in somebody else’s house, it’s nice to see them live.”
The Lightning plan to allow a select group of a few hundred family members and friends starting with Monday’s game against the Panthers at Amalie Arena, with the hope they can begin to welcome season ticket holders and the general public by mid-March.
The Panthers have been a test case. There was no blueprint for opening arenas this winter, and they’ve provided the Lightning with feedback on what has worked and what needs refining.
“We compete on the ice, but off the ice we want all of us to succeed,” said Panthers chief operating officer Sean McCaffrey, who had spearheaded the arena’s reopening. “We’ve been trading thoughts and best practices. They’ve seen what we’ve done and they’re incorporating a lot of the same best practices already and they were already planning on it, so I know they’re going to execute at a high level. I have 100 percent confidence in them.”
A key component for the Panthers has been their messaging. They launched a “red reminder” campaign, placing large red signs inside the arena and out to remind fans to wear their masks at all times unless actively eating and drinking, stay 6 feet apart and wash hands frequently. Other measures — like mobile ticketing and online concession ordering — limit interaction. Motion-sensor sinks and paper towel dispensers limit touch points in bathrooms.
The arena’s air filtration system was upgraded to ensure safer airflow. And the Panthers enforce one of pro sports’ strictest three-strikes-and-you’re-out rules with masks; after three times of being reminded to wear your mask properly, you’re removed from the building.
“Obviously, I think anxiety was high going into it,” McCaffrey said. “But it’s going pretty smoothly. With the masks, there’s going to be constant enforcement. People are always going to slip up. They start daydreaming and thinking it’s February 2020 and not February 2021. We’ve all been like that, so someone’s got to remind them, ‘Hey, we’re still in this and you need to be safe and you need to be respective and conscious of the people around you.’ ”
The NHL itself has struggled to keep its teams on the ice, with seven teams already having to pause their seasons through the first month. Other teams have had games rescheduled or had to play with rosters depleted by players lost to the COVID-19 protocol list. Players and staff have been told to avoid crowds and the general public and are tested every day, but the league has consistently tightened safety protocols.
With the extensive safety measures the Panthers have implemented, McCaffrey said attending a game at BB&T Center is more safe than running errands at a grocery or retail story.
“We have a big, big building, similar to Tampa,” McCaffrey said. “And with only 4,000 people and you look at how you’re spacing and how you distance people, it’s better than a big box at Publix or at Target or Wal-Mart. ... I think we’re safer than a lot of those places. I truly believe that.”
Lightning fan Brian Dodge, a former Plant City resident who now lives in Deerfield Beach, brings his family to see the Lightning every time they play in Sunrise and said he felt safe at Thursday’s game.
“We try to take all the precautions we can,” Dodge said. “We wear our masks, we wash our hands, we kind of stay to ourselves as much as we can. The Panthers seem to do a great job of keeping us separate. Their marketing and ticketing staff have done a wonderful job. So we think it’s going to be okay.”
Lightning players have noticed a difference this week as they began playing in front of fans.
“It feels normal again, kind of,” forward Pat Maroon said. “I think it’s just nice to see faces instead of your teammates. It really energizes the players, I feel like, too. I think with no fans, it’s hard to get into right away. You kind of engage yourself. But with a little bit of noise, a little bit of fans, you kind of feel energy through yourself and you feel like, ‘Oh, here we go.’”
The NHL hopes to have arenas at full capacity for the beginning of next season. McCaffrey said the speed of the vaccine rollout will be the biggest factor and he could foresee allowing more fans into the arena under a hybrid seating model that consisted of socially-distanced, non-vaccinated fans and a separate area with vaccinated fans who could sit closer to each other.
“If it’s early summer or late-summer, I think most people in sports really think (the vaccination rollout) is the key to getting a full building where we can start to operate at normal capacity,” he said. “Without that, I don’t think our organization would risk it to shrink the social distancing requirements and putting people closer together.”
Forchielli and Goetze, who have been season ticket holders for seven years, jumped at the chance to watch the Lightning in action twice — this year, teams are playing mostly two-game series to limit travel — while keeping their fingers crossed that Amalie Arena will open to the public soon.
“If that’s what we have to do right now to see live hockey, that’s fine,” Goetze said. “Let’s keep our masks on and keep our distance from each other when we can. I definitely understand with the Super Bowl in Tampa, that’s why things were kind of pushed back in Tampa. But hopefully we’re past that and in the next couple months we’ll be able to have some games back home.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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