On Sunday in Philadelphia, the Washington Capitals will see something they haven’t seen in nearly a year: fans in the stands.
After that contest, only one of their road games won’t allow any fans, as the Mar. 15 game at the Buffalo Sabres is the last one scheduled to be closed to the public, barring any change in the policy.
Seven of the eight East Division teams have announced plans to sell tickets and allow fans recently, with the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, and Pittsburgh Penguins already having opened to the public, and the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders have announced plans and are following suit this month.
The one team in the East Division that hasn’t announced any plans is Washington, which is due to the District of Columbia’s coronavirus rules, which have been among the toughest in the nation throughout the pandemic.
When might the Capitals finally have their home fans at Capital One Arena? The answer may depend on what the Washington Nationals are allowed to do.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported the city denied the MLB club permission to host fans in April for their regular-season games but would revisit the decision in two weeks. (from ‘Fans are shut out of Nationals Park for now, but that could change,’ Washington Post, 03/02/2021)
While the Nationals can have fans at their Spring Training home in West Palm Beach, Fla., unlike their other National League East counterparts, they also do not have permission to host a limited number of fans for the regular season.
In many other cases, the granting of limited fans for NHL teams have come linked with other sports, and with the Nationals returning north in April, it could be the time the city’s indoor teams get a decision from the city if they are allowed to open.
Washington, who sits in first place in the East, also will only have nine home games scheduled for April and May, so even if the team gets permission from the District of Columbia at that point, there won’t be many regular-season games it will apply to.
What’s the Fan Experience Like?
The NHL in a limited capacity venue is certainly different than a normal game, as the rules and regulations vary from municipality to municipality.
While the teams currently selling tickets are doing so at a quarter of capacity or less, some also are requiring a negative COVID test before being allowed to enter. Fans are spaced apart in pods, being asked to sit in their assigned seat only, and requiring masks and eating and drinking only at the seat.
Fans also are not allowed near the players’ bench, many of which are open to allow the air to circulate. And some arenas are still employing the crowd noise soundtrack to make up for the limited number of fans in the building.
To see what the experience is like, I recently attended a Florida Panthers game as a fan, as the Panthers are one of three NHL teams this season that have allowed fans since Opening Night.
Tickets were spread out throughout the arena, with pods of various sizes spread around the building, with fans not seated in the front rows of the lower deck closest to the ice. Rows of seats were taped off and affixed with stickers instructing fans not to sit at the location.
Everyone over the age of two was required to wear a mask, and there were no bags allowed in the building, and both ticketing and payment were electronic only.
The environment was surreal, as although there are fans in attendance – 3,817 of them, slightly under 20 percent of the building’s normal capacity – the crowd was spread out evenly without the normal congregations near the prime seating. There was the natural crowd noise, but mixed in with artificial noise, leading to a constant buzz that certainly was unnatural and annoying after a while.
But in the end, it was live hockey, and for those who wanted to attend – not a given based on the ticket sales in all sports allowing fans – it was a slice of abnormal normalcy.
What to Know if You Want to Go
Some fans are chomping at the bit to get back in an NHL arena, while others are cautious about an indoor event, even with limited capacity, and so it is an unusual dynamic. With teams not requiring season ticket sales for the year, the offerings of each team are varied, with the season ticket holders getting first dibs on whatever tickets have been available, but even with the limited supply, the demand seems to be relatively low in many markets for the amount of tickets available.
With the Capitals unlikely to allow fans before April at the earliest, for fans who are looking to see them away from home, there are some things to know.
Three of the East Division teams from New York State will require a negative test before entering the building, with the test taken within 72 hours of the event. Capacity at all the East venues is only a few thousand, spaced out, and with season-ticket holders getting first dibs on tickets – although some are usually available for public sale.
And, of course, there are several travel restrictions in place, particularly in New York State and Massachusetts, where visitors from out-of-state are subject to possible quarantine or proof of a positive test to even enter the state. But Pennsylvania lifted restrictions on out-of-state visitors this week, so anyone wanting to see the Capitals’ four games in Philadelphia would only be subject to their home state restrictions on their return. Washington has already made its four allotted visits to Pittsburgh this season, so wouldn’t be returning to the Steel City barring another playoff rematch.
For Capitals’ fans who want to go to games at Capital One Arena will have to wait longer than their counterparts, with the only question being how long it will be. But signs point to it being perhaps the very end of the regular season, or perhaps any playoff games – if the city relents at all.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.