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As NHL playoffs progress, arenas filling up, atmosphere returning to normal

Arenas are gradually approaching full capacity across the U.S.
Fans wave their white towels and cheer during the third period as the Lightning take on the Hurricanes in Game 1 of the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the PNC Arena on Sunday in Raleigh.
Fans wave their white towels and cheer during the third period as the Lightning take on the Hurricanes in Game 1 of the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the PNC Arena on Sunday in Raleigh. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 1
Updated Jun. 2

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Hurricanes boast of having one of the loudest home environments in hockey. At PNC Arena, they measure the noise from a decibel reader at the press box level, and it reached 115.8 decibels during Carolina’s first-round playoff series win against the Capitals two seasons ago. Down on the ice, it’s supposedly eight to 10 points higher.

As they began their second-round playoff series against the Lightning on Sunday, the Hurricanes opened their arena to its largest crowd since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. The 16,299 that filled PNC Arena moved that decibel reader up to nearly 107, creating the loudest atmosphere in the NHL in more than a year.

“You kind of relish in it a little bit, whether you’re at home or on the road, and you just understand how much fans love the game and that you’re a part of the entertainment value here,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “They are part of the game. It’s an amazing environment. So to have them back (like that), it is a little different.”

Fans cheer during Game 1 of the second-round series in Carolina as Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy looks on.
Fans cheer during Game 1 of the second-round series in Carolina as Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy looks on. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Before this season, the NHL’s dream scenario was getting arenas to full capacity by the beginning of next season in October. Only three teams opened the season with fans in the stands: the Panthers, Stars and Coyotes. But vaccination rollouts in the United States have allowed teams to fill their buildings and the league to lift coronavirus restrictions on players, staff members and fans.

The Hurricanes ended the season hosting 5,000 fans, then increased that number to 12,000 for their first-round series against the Predators before raising capacity to its current 87 percent. Carolina president and general manager Don Waddell said he can see the Hurricanes getting to full capacity before the season is over.

“We’ve already started looking at measures that can possibly increase it,” Waddell said. “If we can do it, we’re going to do it, because having this building full is very exciting for not only the fans but also the players.”

The Golden Knights planned to be at full capacity at T-Mobile Arena when they host their first second-round home game against the Avalanche on Friday, filling the venue to about 18,000 fans, up from 12,156 in the first round.

Before the Lightning's series opener against Carolina, a sign on the video board at PNC Arena says that masks are recommended. The NHL lifted its mask mandate in the second round of the postseason, but teams can enforce their own.
Before the Lightning's series opener against Carolina, a sign on the video board at PNC Arena says that masks are recommended. The NHL lifted its mask mandate in the second round of the postseason, but teams can enforce their own. [ EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times ]
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Even in Canada, where the vaccine rollout has been much slower than in the United States, last week was the first time fans returned to an arena when about 2,500 attended the Canadiens’ Game 6 win over the Maple Leafs on Saturday at Montreal’s Bell Centre. About 550 fully vaccinated health care workers attended Game 7 in Toronto on Monday. And Tuesday, the Jets said they would have up to 500 fully vaccinated health care workers for the first two games of their second-round game against the Canadiens.

The Lightning have announced they will increase capacity at Amalie Arena to 13,500, roughly 71 percent of capacity, for their second-round playoff games starting with Thursday’s Game 3. The team met all the health and safety standards to seat up to 11,000 in the first round against the Panthers, and attendance grew gradually from Tampa Bay’s first home postseason game (9,508) to its second (9,762 ) to its third (10,092).

Players and staff members have also benefited from relaxed protocols. When the season began, members of travel parties were limited to hotels, arenas and practice facilities. At home, players were spaced out in locker rooms, were forced to have team meetings remotely and were limited on when they could arrive at the arena.

A 500-ton chiller sits in the parking lot of PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes brought in the chiller to upgrade the HVAC system to meet the NHL's airflow standards to allow 16,000 fans to attend second-round playoff games.
A 500-ton chiller sits in the parking lot of PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes brought in the chiller to upgrade the HVAC system to meet the NHL's airflow standards to allow 16,000 fans to attend second-round playoff games. [ EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times ]

Now, teams that are considered fully vaccinated — they have at least 85 percent of required personnel fully vaccinated — have been able to regain some normalcy. The Lightning are considered fully vaccinated.

“Is it different than it was four months ago? There’s no question it’s different,” Cooper said. “But I think what had been taken away from us or what had been changed was so drastic that not even becoming close to normal is like, it’s just exciting to be a part of it and we’re not even there yet.”

For fans, the league announced last week that it was lifting the league-mandated mask-wearing policy in arenas, though teams can retain their own rules on wearing face coverings. The Lightning hadn’t announced whether they planned on keeping their mask policy, which requires all fans in the building to wear masks unless they are actively eating or drinking.

Air tubes from HVAC system units emerge from a tunnel at the BB&T Center during the Lightning's first-round playoff series against the Panthers. The league has mandated HVAC upgrades in arenas to improve airflow to allow more fans in the stands.
Air tubes from HVAC system units emerge from a tunnel at the BB&T Center during the Lightning's first-round playoff series against the Panthers. The league has mandated HVAC upgrades in arenas to improve airflow to allow more fans in the stands. [ EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times ]

Outside NHL arenas, teams have shuttled in large HVAC system machinery to provide the necessary upgrades to meet the airflow standards set by the league. In Carolina, the team brought in a 500-ton chiller to pump in an additional cubic feet of air per minute to meet those requirements. The cost to rent and run the chiller is $200,000.

That’s a huge price tag, and the Hurricanes received help from the Centennial Authority, the state-run body that owns PNC Arena. But for teams like Carolina, it’s necessary.

“Every dollar we take in is … one dollar we didn’t have yesterday, so this is big for us,” Waddell said. “In a normal year, there’s not as much money in the playoffs as people think because of the cost of league dues, travel, all that. Where you benefit from the playoffs … (is having) a run in the playoffs, get people excited about it, then get them as season ticket members the following year.”

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