The last time the Washington Capitals played in Buffalo back on March 9, 2020, they played in front of 16,539 fans at KeyBank Center, most of whom enjoyed a 3-2 shootout win by the home team.
It turned out to be the last game for the Capitals in the 2019-20 regular season, who – unknown to us at the time as Washington still had 13 games left on the schedule – clinched the Metropolitan Division thanks to the one point they gained that night. Their next scheduled home game at Capital One Arena against the Detroit Red Wings three nights later was postponed, and that game and the other dozen were never to be made up.
When they opened the 2020-21 regular season, they returned to face the Buffalo Sabres just over 10 months after their last regular-season game in the same venue. Instead of a healthy opening night crowd, they were greeted by 19,040 empty seats as they opened with a 6-4 win played under the new reality of the NHL in the pandemic.
The reality of this season is most teams won’t have fans in the stands to start the season, and a number may not see any until at least the postseason. While teams are doing their best to create a game-like atmosphere for the players, it’s still a surreal experience for the few who are able to take in a game in person.
Out With the Crowd, In With the Audio
One of the NHL’s strengths is the in-person experience which doesn’t always translate to television, with the speed and crowd intensity present in most arenas.
Gone is the familiar ebb and flow of the crowd, as the crescendo of a rush by the home team was replaced with a constant buzzing sound. Washington goals were treated with that roar turned down to nothing, leaving a complete silence in the arena.
The first sign something is strange is when you enter the arena and see the large tarps down low, and when the teams came out for warmups to music, but without any crowd reaction. Normally, the Caps draw a number of fans to Buffalo, particularly from Southern Ontario, and would have a gathering of red-clad followers crowding behind their bench, where a “Thank You Frontline Workers” tarp now sits.
For the national anthems – Buffalo is the only spot in the NHL you will hear both the Canadian and American anthems this regular season – the only sound after the taped rendition was the sticks tapping on the ice from the two teams.
Once the puck dropped, the crowd noise was turned on, and remained a constant level for most of the 60 minutes, but you could still hear the players from the press box in the upper deck, or a puck going in off the post without any interference. The crowd audio level was at 75 decibels or so, above a speaking voice but just below a dial tone, and remained that way most of the contest.
In a city where Alex Ovechkin cupped his hand to the crowd to respond to a torrent of boos after scoring a goal back in 2006, there was no jeering of any kind to be heard in the audio, just a few minutes of silence in certain spots.
There wasn’t the crowd urging a team to “Shoot!” on the power play, no reaction at all to goals other than the players on the bench. A third-period hit to the head on Eric Staal by Nick Dowd, and the ensuing skirmish, didn’t generate any special reaction, nor did a nice save on Ovechkin by Carter Hutton. A full-fledged tilt between Brenden Dillon and Jake McCabe played out under the same audio track, with no change in volume.
You had the normal selection of music, which featured everything from the local product Goo Goo Dolls and regional favorite (at least on the southern side of the border) Tragically Hip. But the audio was more noticeable with the lack of any reaction inside of the building.
Empty Seats Will Be the Norm
While the players in the 24-team playoff got used to the empty buildings in the bubble in Toronto, it still was a different start to a campaign.
Washington will have to get used to the artificial experience for a while, as they probably won’t play in front of any fans in the stands for at least a month with games in Buffalo and Pittsburgh and a long homestand to follow.
But, whenever anyone talks about Zdeno Chara’s Capitals debut, or Peter Laviolette’s first win in Washington, or in general, talks about the season opener, instead of a crowd of thousands there was maybe a couple hundred in the building total. And it made for a strange experience for those lucky enough to be in the building.
As John Carlson commented afterwards, “This is different than the beginning of any other year.”