Madison Square Garden is a special place.
So many of these buildings are generic, dual-sport facilities that all feel the same and look the same once you're inside. But not the Garden. The Garden has a feel all its own.
My first trip to the World's Most Famous Arena was during the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. I was a member of the visiting media, covering the Los Angeles Kings. I walked around an empty concourse after a morning skate with a few veteran reporters just to soak up the building's energy, because there is nothing like the quiet hum of an empty arena a few hours before a big game.
Except now, most arenas are empty on game day, and it feels anything but special. The coronavirus pandemic has fans confined to their couches as the 2021 NHL season kicks off. And without fans, it just feels...weird.
The NHL is going to great lengths to stage a season and attempt to keep all involved healthy. Social distancing measures have been implemented, and strict protocols are to be adhered to at all times, or teams face monetary punishment or draft-pick forfeitures.
But Thursday night, there was a game at the Garden, even if few were in the stands to see it. So, I made the trip out from Brooklyn to see what it was like to cover hockey in a pandemic.
I've covered a lot of hockey games as a regional writer in Southern California and a beat writer in New York and New Jersey. In fact, one of the last games I covered before the 2019-20 season was put on hiatus was at the Garden.
But this game between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders was unlike any I have ever covered.
Here's how the night went.
I got off the train at Penn Station. Getting a seat on a Penn Station-bound subway at rush hour would have been impossible a year ago. People would be packed shoulder-to-shoulder, crammed in like a can of sardines. But it was relatively uncrowded this time, which seems to be the new normal.
Madison Square Garden is testing each media member for the coronavirus prior to every game. The Rangers' public relations department was helpful and communicative in the days leading up to the home opener, and I was informed three days in advance that I was scheduled for a test at 4:45 p.m. ET.
Instructions and rules were sent ahead of time. The Rangers are one of a few teams that are testing each media member, as each club is approaching this differently.
Some teams are requiring temperature checks, and others are only asking a few basic health questions. Across the river in Newark, the Devils are administering temperature checks and requiring media members to fill out a waiver. They're also serving media meals, which is something many teams are not doing.
All teams are requiring media and staff to wear masks and/or facial coverings the entire time they are in the arena.
I headed over to the media entrance and ran into a few other writers. We kept our distance while we chatted about the upcoming season. It felt familiar but still strange. It's the same building with the same people, but we're usually not wearing masks and talking about nasal swabs.
Building security informed us that we were allowed inside the security entrance, but first we needed to fill out a health screening form. This required scanning a QR code on our phones and filling out a questionnaire. We were asked to state our reason for being there and asked whether we had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days, had been contacted by contact tracers from the New York City Health Department and whether we had experienced any symptoms of the coronavirus.
We were led through a maze of hallways into an amphitheater, which has been turned into a testing site. We were given instructions to scan yet another QR code and register for an account with Bio-Reference Laboratories, the company conducting the for Madison Square Garden.
By now, everyone has heard the horror stories about coronavirus testing. The swabs are shoved deep into your nasal cavity, and yes, it feels like it's touching your brain. I'm familiar with the feeling. I traveled to and from California over the summer, so I was tested a few times for precautionary measures.
After I was swabbed, I was directed to my seat. I pulled out my computer to work on a baseball column while I waited for my test results. Other media members were seated nearby, though all of us were spaced apart. We bantered back and forth, as we usually do, and it felt good to have those interactions once again.
I test negative! I'm given a card informing me of my test results, a credential and a wristband. I'm led up to an elevator where an attendant is taking media three at a time up to press seating on the bridge.
I'm relieved that there is an attendant, because I can never remember what level the press box is on in the Garden. I've covered games at all 31 arenas and can remember where the press boxes are located in 30 of them. For some reason, I can never remember it here.
This whole process was all carefully orchestrated and well organized. It's an impressive undertaking.
Warm-ups. Igor Shesterkin and Semyon Varlamov lead their teams onto the ice. The music is pumping. But still, there is something slightly off-putting about looking down at the glass and not seeing any fans clamoring for pucks.
David Quinn, the Rangers' third-year head coach, felt it too.
"We knew we weren't going to have fans, and we went through it in the bubble," he said. "But when I walked out to the bench, I looked at [assistant coach Jacques Martin] and said, 'We've been through this before, but boy, this is eerie.' It really is odd when you walk out to the bench and there's nobody in the building. You don't hear a peep."
Full team introductions are done, as is standard for a home opener, but no one really seems to know what to do when their names are called.
Do they wave? Stick tap? Why bother when no one is there?
Puck drop. There isn't a ton of energy off the drop, which is to be expected when there are no fans to fuel the adrenaline. The fake crowd noise is pumped in, and it sounds...like fake crowd noise. Almost as if someone is playing an arcade game somewhere in the back of a bar.
Eventually, you start to get used to it, and the ambient sound takes on a white noise type of quality.
The Islanders looked good right away. They looked structured and tough. The Rangers are a young team built for speed, but the Islanders were able to significantly slow them down. The Isles go up 3-0 in the first period.
I took a lap around the building and passed the boarded-up concession stands. Plastic slips cover the beer taps, and refrigerators remain off and empty. I didn't see a single other person, though the organist was still playing as if the place were packed.
There were a lot of penalties—mostly bad ones from the Rangers. The Islanders capitalized on a late power play to go up 4-0. Things got a little chippy as time expired. After the buzzer, the officials put 0.5 seconds back on the clock, and the two teams were forced to play it out. There was no explanation by the officials...probably because there were no fans in attendance needing an explanation.
That 0.5 seconds was enough to get the two teams heated. There were some post-whistle scrums, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau took a swing at Brendan Lemieux.
Finally, it felt like a real hockey game.
A PR staffer passed out water bottles to all of the media members. Typically, there are snacks and drinks in the press box throughout games, but water is all we're allowed for the foreseeable future.
The first injuries of the season: Rangers center Kevin Rooney got tangled up with Ross Johnston and went face-first into the ice. A few minutes later, Shesterkin collided with Ryan Pulock in net and was looked at by a trainer.
It was jarring when the fake crowd noise was cut for the injuries. Some of these things will feel less weird as games go on, but everything that felt strange in this first game felt extra strange.
Typically, at the last TV timeout, many reporters head downstairs to the media rooms to finish working. It's helpful to be closer to the locker rooms. I instinctively started to pack up as the clock wound down but then reminded myself to stay in my seat, because postgame press conferences are all being conducted over Zoom this season.
Everyone is used to Zoom press conferences after months of them, but they're still full of technical glitches. There were problems with the sound, problems asking follow-up questions, and one media member couldn't seem to get his microphone working in order to ask anything.
I feel for the players and coaches being questioned. Sometimes the Zoom press conferences are set up so that they can't see the reporters on the screen—they can only hear them asking questions—which must feel a little like talking to Oz.
Chris Kreider visibly jumped as he heard the Windows opening sound coming from a speaker inside the press conference room. A few of us laughed. It's a pandemic...we need humor.
A game without fans doesn't feel quite right. But it's still a game, which provides a little normalcy at a time when many need the comfort of it.
The media is told to leave. We were warned ahead of time that we would be asked to leave one hour after Zoom press conferences end. My cab driver gets lost, and we nearly end up in New Jersey before I redirect him across town to the Williamsburg Bridge.
It's a fitting end to an eerie night.