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Returning to “Normal”

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Recounting a night out at a hockey game, over a year in the making

New York Islanders v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

I’ll be the first to admit that when the NHL, and eventually the Caps, began talking about allowing fans back in the building, I did not believe that I would be among them. Not this season, at least. The idea of returning to that level of “normal”, of being surrounded by that many people (and subjecting the arena workers to that many people) seemed beyond comprehension.

But then an unexpected offer to join my family at the game coincided with the end of my two-week post-vaccine period... and despite a low level of anxiety (mostly without logic to back it up), I found myself agreeing to go.

Everything about it felt different at first, from the traffic-less commute into the city to the closed parking garages to the lack of red-clad Caps fans swarming the streets around the arena. There were people out and about, of course, but missing was that energy that you usually feel walking up to a sports venue ahead of a big game.

It was clear upon arriving at Capital One Arena that plenty of precautions were in place to ensure - or at least appear to ensure - the health and safety of everyone in the building, which changed a lot about the gameday experience.

Entrance to the building was assigned based on where your seats were to ensure that no one area got too crowded, with a brief security scan (no purses allowed!) at each door - socially distanced, of course. Most of the concession stands were closed, with small team store kiosks and the occasional hot dog or pretzel the only options available. Plexiglass separated customers from the arena employees and food was covered, to be consumed only at your seat, which was spread out from others (and if you were in the lower bowl, likely closer to cardboard cutouts of fans than real people).

It all felt familiar for the times, of course, but very, very different for a hockey game.

Then the lights went out. The Caps took the ice. And suddenly what had felt so strange and different and foreign now felt comfortable. Sure, the arena was emptier than it had been in years and everyone was masked and it had been over 400 days since any of us had seen live hockey in the District... but we were home again and it felt almost as if we’d never left.

What stood out most to me - other than the fact that the Caps were playing a hell of a good game - was just how joyful, almost giddy, people were.

From the second you walked in the building, amid all the strangeness and newness and separation, as soon as you encountered other fans that sense of utter glee was palpable. You could feel the excitement everyone felt at being able to cheer about something together, whether it was a well-deserved ovation for frontline workers in attendance or simply applauding a cleared puck on the penalty kill.

It certainly didn’t hurt that, despite the lack of goals, the Caps gave us plenty to cheer about (and the refs gave us plenty to yell in unison about). It was a fun game to watch live from start to finish. But there was a little extra energy in each cheer, a little extra appreciation for good plays and milestones and the victory as a whole – as if making up for not being able to cheer in person for so long.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the experience was such a positive one, outcome of the game aside. But as someone who was nervous to return, nervous to be a part of an even reduced-size crowd, nervous to dip my toe back into something that was once so familiar to me, it was an excellent evening from start to finish and one that lived up to the almost 14-month wait.

Special thanks to the hard-working Capital One Arena employees and team officials who not only ensured that the reentry into the hockey world went as smoothly and safely as possible, but did so with a smile. Welcome back, Caps fans!