A man watches the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs at a bar in Montreal, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Fans still drawn to arenas despite secure zones as NHL returns to ice

Many fans watching in bars, however, seemed to appreciate the precautions the bars were taking

It was almost 30 C as Edmonton Oilers fan Darnell Belcourt stood outside the protective bubble that surrounds Rogers Place and waited for the puck to drop in the team’s opening qualifying round game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The jumbo screen he was watching was inside the fence that surrounded a plaza that’s intended for players, coaches and staff to relax outdoors, but a few fans like Belcourt still felt it was the best place to watch as the NHL resumed its COVID-19 truncated season on Saturday.

“I’m going to be here every game. Next time I’m going to bring a chair, though,” Belcourt laughed as he alternated between standing on concrete and sitting on the small window ledge of a nearby office building.

Comfy chairs and cold beer weren’t far away, however, as many fans filled bars near Rogers Place — at least as much as new social-distancing rules would allow.

“It’s going on right there!” exclaimed Hanna Warawa, who watched the game on a screen set up on the patio of Mercer’s Tavern, directly across the street from the arena.

David Clanahan, who watched at the Thrift Shop bar not far away, said August seemed like a weird time to watch hockey. But hot as it was, he still wore a jersey.

“It’s way too hot, but worth it,” he said.

In Toronto, the streets around Scotiabank Arena and its nearby secure zone were relatively quiet when the first game between the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes began earlier on Saturday.

Many nearby restaurants were closed and much of the perimeter around the arena was blocked off. Kellys Landing Bar Grill Hub Restaurant was showing the games on its screens near the arena but had many tables available — a better indication of interest in Canada’s biggest city might come Sunday night when the host Maple Leafs open against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Jordan Alexander, manager of Sport Chek at Maple Leaf Square near the arena, said they’re selling about one-eighth the amount of Leafs merchandise compared to Toronto Raptors items in recent weeks. The Raptors also began their restart on Saturday near Orlando, Fla.

Alexander figured some streets might be shut down for some fanfare, but that didn’t happen and so far “it’s been pretty minimal impact.”

“I was expecting to see fans waiting to see the players,” he said. “I thought people might come down, but people have been respectful in terms of giving space and all of that. “

Self-described “massive Leafs fans” Michael Papaeliou and Alyssa Derosario made a day trip to the city from Markham, Ont., to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and possibly catch a game on TV at a restaurant Saturday.

“So excited for it to return,” Papaeliou said. “The NHL is doing a really great job, better than any other league, to make this work.”

They praised the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and the blockades set up around the Fairmont Royal York, one of two hotels the NHL is using in Toronto.

“Especially in a city like Toronto that’s so busy, it’s good to see that they’re practising the right rules and regulations safety-wise,” said Derosario.

During the Oilers-Blackhawks game in Edmonton, about 40 adults and children stood on Jasper Avenue not far from Rogers Place protesting an indoor mask bylaw that went into effect in the city Saturday.

Many fans watching in bars, however, seemed to appreciate the precautions the bars were taking, such as requiring people to sanitize their hands when they entered.

“It seemed like the best way to still watch the game around some people but still taking some reasonable safety precautions,” Clanahan said.

Nicholas O’Connell, who was also at Thrift Shop, said he had his mask, and was just thankful hockey was back.

“We didn’t think we’d be sitting here a couple of months ago because of COVID, and now we’re able to hang out with our friends which is pretty good.”

— With files from Victoria Ahearn in Toronto and Donna Spencer in Edmonton.

Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press

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