“The first shift, you can hear every single detail. You can hear the other coaches yelling. The ice scraping, the puck hitting the boards.”
That’s how Jake Chelios, veteran of not one, but two AHL games played in an empty arena, described his introduction to what’s about to become the new reality in spectator sports because of COVID-19.
“Nobody comes to the stadium,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases, told Snapchat’s Peter Hamby, when asked about sports resuming this summer.
This means the NHL playoffs in an empty arena near (or not near) you.
Circumstances were far different when Chelios and his Charlotte Checkers skated in an empty Bojangles’ Coliseum twice in a three-season span.
The 29-year-old defenseman, most recently of the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star, laughed: “The reason for it was about a half-foot of snow in Charlotte, which shut everything down.”
Both the January 22, 2016 shootout loss to the Chicago Wolves and the January 17, 2018 victory over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers took place in an empty arena due to similar inclement weather. Chelios, Patrick Brown and Trevor Carrick were the only Checkers to appear in both contests.
It was in warm-ups, an hour before the drop of the puck, when Chelios first noticed something amiss: “There’s nobody in the building. It’s a weird feeling.”
It would get weirder.
It wasn’t until the opening draw when the alien environment really spooked Chelios: “Warm-ups, the music’s going so loud. But right before the drop of the puck, for that 10 seconds, there’s no music and there’s not a sound going on.”
Without the crowd, other senses, especially hearing, became heightened.
“You can’t really describe the first couple shifts,” Chelios offered. “You hear how loud the glass really is. In games, you skate so much harder than practice, so it almost feels like it’s a little more intense the first couple shifts even though it isn’t.”
Mark Morris, who coached the 2015-16 Checkers, made a similar observation: “Shoot a puck over the glass, you’re going to hear it hit the back of an empty seat. Every hit, you can hear the boards and the glass rattle. When they miss the net, it’s just magnified. It seems to reverberate through the rink.”
“After the first couple of shifts, you’re used to it, you’re in the game,” Chelios said. “But I don’t think there’s any way to prepare somebody for a situation like that.”
It wasn’t just crickets from the seats that you had to get used to.
“There was much less chirping,” Chelios pointed out. “I think everybody was kind of in an awkward scene. It was too quiet, you knew if you said something the entire building was going to hear it. Everybody was a little bit more careful about what they said.”
This brokered an unexpected detente between coaches and referees.
“You really have to tone down ... your sentiments,” the 62-year-old Morris, who’s looking to get back into the pro coaching ranks, said. “Keep it to a minimum, because everything and anything you say is going to come across loud and clear.”
War councils would also have to be more covert.
“It was all new for us, so I’m sure we weren’t as quiet as we liked,” Chelios acknowledged. “Definitely, if you’re talking to a teammate, somebody from the other team could hear you pretty far away.”
The Hockey Hall of Famer’s youngest son also indicated that the games were still on TV, still another reason to exercise caution. Staff members and significant others were also allowed in.
In both these games, there was a single sliver of normalcy that both player and coach could hang onto.
“The only thing that helped a lot was our DJ was able to make it,” Chelios revealed. “If you can have the same kind of music during the game, it does help a lot, makes you feel like it’s more of a game and not just a practice scrimmage.”
Morris agreed: “There are certain portions of the game, you follow a pattern. It’s almost expected to hear some type of music, some type of advertisement. You do look forward to that familiarity.”
“Late in the season too, as a player, you get to know the music almost to a T, what the DJ is going to play,” the defenseman said. “The music was the only thing that you could relate to a real game.”
As for the actual game being played on the ice, Chelios didn’t notice much of a difference between the 2016 and 2018 tilts: “It was pretty much the same. It’s just that weird, eerie feeling.”
He admitted that emotion had to be manufactured: “When the game starts, it almost feels like a pre-season, inter-squad game. It’s a real game, everybody’s trying and stuff. But since there’s nobody in the crowd, it almost feels like an inter-squad game.
“It’s tough. You have to take it upon yourself to go through the same process. Know it’s going to be a little different, but the game still means a lot.”
“You might have to do a little motivating if things get flat, get a jump in their step,” Morris, the two-time NHL assistant coach, indicated.
Interestingly, both contests followed similar scripts, though with opposite results for the Checkers.
In 2016, they raced out to a 3-0 lead before the Wolves caught up with three goals in the third, setting the stage for a Danny Kristo shootout winner. In 2018, the Sound Tigers jumped out to a 3-1 edge before the home team lapped them with three goals in the final frame to pull out a 4-3 victory.
“Any game where your team starts hot, you tend to slow it down as the game goes on,” Chelios noted. “I’m sure it was even more dramatic during those games.”
But it all comes back to what’s missing.
“Fans are such a big part, the fun they bring to a rink. The lack of atmosphere comes to mind,” Morris remembered. “They bring that X-factor that seems to make a difference in a close game.”
“When you’re in a regular game, the crowd is sort of white noise,” Chelios, who made his NHL debut last year, said. “It feels normal. But when you take that white noise away, it’s like you notice every little bounce of the puck. Every little thing that happens, which is what throws us off.”
At the core, that’s what might be most jarring about playing in an empty arena for the athletes.
“That’s a big part of pro sports, being able to perform by repetition. It starts with your warm-up routine or how you tie your skates or put your shinpads on,” Morris said. “We’re creatures of habit.”
NHL players and coaches may have to learn new tricks — and fast — if they want to keep up with this new world order.
“You have to get over the fact that there’s nobody in the stadium, no extra noise. You have to treat it like a real game,” the player suggested. “The team that can get used to the environment as quick as possible is going to be the one that has the advantage.”
“When you coach a game, you block out that energy [of a full arena anyway]. You’re focused on performance, you’re focused on execution, that shouldn’t change,” the coach pointed out, adding, “Ice time always sends a clear message. Everybody understands ice time.”
For Chelios and Morris, these games were special. For the NHL, they might be the new normal.
Chelios chuckled: “The next day of each game, we all got to see ourselves on ESPN, which was pretty funny. You don’t see too much hockey on ESPN, especially from the AHL. The one time we made the news was the one time nobody saw the game.”