For the first time in over 10 months, the Vegas Golden Knights will play a hockey game with fans in attendance on Friday.
Only not at T-Mobile Arena. The Golden Knights will make their first road trip of this condensed 2021 season to Glendale to complete a four-game series with the Arizona Coyotes.
The Coyotes are one of three NHL teams — along with the Florida Panthers, as will the Dallas Stars when they open their season Friday — that are allowing fans into their home buildings based on COVID-19 restrictions. Gila River Arena is operating at a max capacity of 3,450 fans.
None of what’s happening in the world is normal by any means, but for a Golden Knights team that just played four games inside an empty T-Mobile Arena where 18,000-plus fans would normally lose their voices the next day, it’ll be somewhat of a return to originality for albeit a brief time.
“Any sense of normalcy in the world right now is welcomed by anybody,” said Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer. “By no means is that a reflection on Nevada’s decision not to allow fans, because I agree with it where everything’s at. It will be nice to have a little bit of normalcy in that area.”
DeBoer said there was an organization-wide meeting Thursday morning to discuss COVID protocols as the Golden Knights travel to what is deemed a COVID hotspot. It was the longest meeting they’ve had to this point and was crucial to have, given what’s transpired since the season began.
Vegas is off to a 4-0-0 start for the first time in franchise history after defeating Arizona 5-2 on Wednesday.
“The team’s done a good job explaining to us the protocols and the measures to keep us safe and keep everyone in the organization safe,” said Vegas defenseman Zach Whitecloud. “We’re excited to go on the road and play in someone else’s building, go down to Arizona and get the job done.”
The NHL postponed Dallas’ first three games due to a large coronavirus outbreak within the organization, and the Carolina Hurricanes just recently had two games postponed with five players on the COVID absence list. The Washington Capitals were fined $100,000 Wednesday for violating COVID protocols that saw stars Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov go on the COVID absence list, as well as starting goalie Ilya Samsonov testing positive.
“It’s not going to be a typical road trip. It’s going to be a moving version of the bubble we had in Edmonton,” DeBoer said. “Our group’s got to be diligent and hope we can be lucky and avoid this.”
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak recently extended an order that public gatherings be capped at 50 people. The state of Nevada announced 1,171 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, bringing the total to 203,292 state-wide since the beginning of the pandemic. Until the numbers come down and the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed efficiently, it could be months before Golden Knights fans will be able to attend home games.
Attending Coyotes games, however, is a different story. Golden Knights fans have been known to turn out for Arizona games, whether making the 268-mile drive or the one-hour-plus flight from Las Vegas to Glendale, and this pandemic will not be an exception.
“I think it’ll be a lot of fun,” said Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch. “It’s been almost a year it feels like since we’ve had fans and crowds. I’ve heard there’s going to be a good amount of Vegas Golden Knights fans, so we’re excited to see that. I think it’ll be a lot of fun for them to come watch a game.”
Coming full circle
Cassandra Tutson was at the last pre-pandemic Golden Knights game at T-Mobile Arena on March 3, a 3-0 victory against the New Jersey Devils. It was Robin Lehner’s first shutout with Vegas and, per tradition, all fans in attendance got a free dozen donuts from Krispy Kreme the following day.
But it was the days that followed that were the toughest. On March 8, her mother, JoAnn Tutson, was taken to the hospital. She wouldn’t eat, sleeping became constant, and lethargy took over.
“She went into the hospital and never came out,” she said.
JoAnn died on March 24 at 75 years old.
Tackling on her day-to-day job at a grocery store in Long Beach, California, the past 10 months have been a toll on Cassandra. She’s longed for an escape, even for a moment, to see her Golden Knights live in action for the first time since that Devils game. She’ll get the chance Friday when she makes the trek to Glendale.
Cassandra remembers meeting a Devils fan seated next to her that night. He told Cassandra that he had pneumonia, but felt like he had to be there anyway.
“That was when I guess COVID became ‘real’ to me,” she said. “Other than that, the game just felt like being gone and everyone was excited for free donuts.”
How excited is she to go? She did this interview while getting her COVID-19 vaccine.
“It will be full circle for me simply because my life was work, school and hockey, I guess,” she said. “But this will start to what will be normalcy.”
David Silvey and his wife Taylor had not been to a live game since Feb. 17, which was a Golden Knights win against the Washington Capitals. There was a palpable buzz in the building that night; Ovechkin was still on a quest for his 700th goal and Vegas was in the midst of a daunting “murderer’s row” homestand. The Golden Knights won 3-2, the third win of a franchise-record eight-game winning streak.
The moment tickets were on sale, the Centennial-area residents jumped at the immediate chance to get a suite.
“Everything about the last nine months has been mentally and emotionally draining for almost everyone I think and for us having these games to look forward to is a small escape from reality, even if just for a few hours, and such a relief and joy to have,” he said.
For these fans, and even more that reached out to say they’re going this weekend, the Golden Knights have become a beacon of escape since 1 October. The fanbase has rallied behind them ever since. Now, in these crazy times, the fans have another reason to get behind their team in hopes of building off their hot start.
“Even just that sliver of normalcy in such uncertain times means more than a lot of people may ever realize to some,” Silvey said. “For us looking forward to a VGK game in the middle of a long work week in the middle of a pandemic is that small sense of normalcy and relief we look forward to and helps us through all this craziness.”