'It feels more animated': athletes, experts say live fans key to good games

·9 min read

Dylan DeMelo heard the cars honking out on Winnipeg's Portage Avenue as he took to the ice for warm-up on Monday.

The Jets had a chance to sweep the Edmonton Oilers in their first-round playoff series and hockey fans were eager to show their excitement — even if they couldn't be in the arena.

While crowds have returned to many sports venues in the U.S., Canadian rinks have remained empty as governments continue to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Playing in empty stadiums has been difficult, DeMelo said, but it's especially hard now that the NHL playoffs are underway.

"I think its hard to see watching the other teams play, especially in the U.S. where they've basically got full barns, or at least a lot of fans," the Jets defenceman said.

"Those games are a lot more fun to watch than games without any fans in the building."

The story finally will shift slightly in Canada on Saturday night. With a win in Game 5 over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens earned a trip home to play in front of 2,500 fans after Quebec loosened COVID-19 restrictions. It will mark the first crowd at an NHL game in Canada since March 2020, but it will be a far cry from the scenes south of the border.

The 2021 NHL season has shown how much of an impact fans can have on games, said Catherine Sabiston, a professor in the University of Toronto's faculty of kinesiology and physical education.

Watching U.S.-based events where crowds are allowed "feels more like what we're used to," she said.

"The play feels faster, it feels more animated, you can tell that the players are reacting to the noise of the fans," said Sabiston, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in physical activity and mental health. "And then you turn to the Canadian playoffs and of course there’s no fans in the stands. A big sort of dichotomy in terms of the play."

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan noticed the difference when about 9,000 fans were allowed in PPG Paints Arena for Game 1 against the New York Islanders earlier this month.

"It was electric," Sullivan said after the Penguins downed the Islanders 2-1. "I know our players, they feed off it. They love the energy that the fan base brings. I think it helped us with the start that we had tonight. It’s just such a great environment. It’s not the same when they’re not there.”

The building was "going crazy," said Penguins defenceman Mike Matheson.

"Any time you look up and those towels spinning with that many people in the building, especially with everything going on in the world and the fact that we haven’t been able to have everybody in the building this season, to see that gives you chills and really puts a spark in our team," he said.

It was a much different scene for the first two playoff games in Winnipeg, with white towels covering all the empty seats to replicate the traditional playoff whiteout.

Playing in front of a live audience gives athletes a sense of purpose that just isn't there with fake noise piped in over a sound system, Sabiston said.

"Fans do help players who thrive on the motivation they get from the fans, the confidence fans instil in them, the positive feedback — or the negative feedback — motivates players to play differently, to play better," she said. "That’s really what we’re missing."

One NBA player found motivation in a hostile crowd earlier this week.

More than 15,000 raucous Knicks fans filled Madison Square Garden to watch Game 1 of New York's first-round series against Atlanta. Many jeered Hawks star Trae Young every time he stepped on the floor, chanting his name with an expletive in front.

Young took the noise is stride, and put up 32 points and 10 assists.

With less than a second on the clock, he hit a shot that gave the Hawks a 107-105 win. The 22-year-old guard held his finger to his lips as he walked away from the basket.

“As I hit the floater, everybody got quiet. I was waiting for those f-you chants again," Young said after the game.

“I’ve always looked at it as I’m doing something right if I’m offending them with my play that much. If they hate me that much, I must be doing something right.

"I’m glad the fans are back. I’m glad MSG was rocking tonight.”

The return of crowds to sporting events hasn't been entirely smooth.

On Sunday, hundreds of golf fans got past barriers and surrounded Phil Mickelson on the green as he secured his PGA Championship win. An overhead shot of the scene showed the 50-year-old being completely engulfed by the South Carolina crowd.

"It's an incredible experience. I've never had something like that,'' Mickelson said. "It was a little bit unnerving, but it was exceptionally awesome, too.''

There are lessons to be learned as live audiences return, Sabiston said, from where they should be seated to what slogans they should be prompted to chant in order to best motivate a team.

It's also an opportunity to learn more about how noise can impact athletes, she said, and at what level it becomes too difficult for teammates to communicate.

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said the sound inside Boston's TD Garden was unbelievable when about 4,500 people watched his team edge the Washington Capitals in double overtime on May 19.

“It’s loud because we’re so used to silence. I can only imagine when it goes to full capacity again," Cassidy said. "But for us right now, it’s great. Obviously the overtime for us is the loudest. It felt like a full building when that went in."

The Bruins have announced that they expect the arena to be "near full capacity" when they face the Islanders in the second round.

Returning bodies to sporting venues in Canada has been a slower process.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer said on May 18 that allowing fans into games is not under "serious consideration."

"I would say if you look at that timing and what's the schedule for the NHL playoffs, which is taking place right now and into the summer months, it's not really something that's under serious consideration in terms of fans in the stands, just based on where we are with our vaccination campaign at this point," he said.

Later that day, however, Quebec gave the green light for the Canadiens to have 2,500 fans for a potential Game 6.

The possibility of playing in front of fans was a motivator heading into a possible elimination game on Thursday, said Habs forward Tyler Toffoli.

"It’s definitely in the back of all of our minds. We’ve definitely missed it this year the entire season," he said. "To get the opportunity to play in front of even the small amount that’s going to be allowed is huge and will be a lot of fun."

Another factor to keep an eye on as people return to live sporting events is how connected fans feel to their teams, said Sabiston.

“Fans feel like they have a say or a reaction that makes a difference to athletes," she said. "So a lot of that feeling of cohesion and connection to the team will also be important to follow over time.”

Ben Schellenberg, an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba's faculty of kinesiology and recreation management, has been looking into how NBA fans were impacted when the league suspended play as COVID-19 began to grip North America in 2020.

Schellenberg and his colleagues had fans fill out surveys to gauge how they were feeling during the hiatus, what they were doing to cope, and how they were filling their free time.

The research found that fans with an "obsessive passion" that dominates their life and identity reported higher levels of distress, avoided news about the suspension, were less likely to agree with putting the season on pause, and were more likely to use drugs and alcohol to cope.

“It does show that there’s a consistent relationship between the extent to which someone’s obsessed with being a fan and how distressed they are when their favourite sport is cancelled or suspended for some reason," Schellenberg said.

Sports provides people with escape and social connection, he added.

"During a pandemic, we’re not allowed to be social with people and we have a lot to escape from. And when sport is cancelled, that can be tough for people," Schellenberg said. "Even if there’s no fans in the stands, I think having games played that people can sit and watch and escape from the world for a few hours, I don’t think that’s frivolous to give people an outlet.”

As much as people need sports, some athletes and coaches feel they need a live audience, too.

Having people in the building adds to the energy level, said Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, and in an empty rink, it's harder to shift a game's momentum — especially in the playoffs.

“The farther you go, you’re kind of playing on fumes. And it’s not even just physical, it’s emotional," he said. "The fans drive it. The farther you go in the playoffs, they’re just the emotional well that you draw on.”

Winnipeg heads into the second round of the post-season without a glimmer of hope of playing in front of a crowd in the near future hard-hit Manitoba. For now, the team will settle for the noisy support fans have provided from afar.

After the Jets beat the Oilers 4-3 in triple overtime on Monday, horns rang out on the city's streets, with many people cheering and hoisting brooms from their cars to celebrate the sweep.

People living in the city's core probably weren't enthused about the timing, with the revelry coming around 3 a.m., said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey.

"But that makes it pretty special, driving home after the game and seeing some of the streets lined up with cars," he said. "People waiting to waiting to wave at us and celebrate in the best way you can at this point in time was pretty cool."

— With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2021.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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