The Boston Bruins hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Saturday night battle March 7, 2020. The contest featured many aspects hockey fans cherish about the sport: multiple fights, exciting goals and intensity permeating throughout the arena.
The Lightning and Bruins were two of the best teams in the NHL, and that game did little to change that sentiment. While Tampa Bay came out on top with a 5-3 victory, at least the thousands of Boston fans exiting TD Garden took in a riveting hockey game.
On that March evening, no fan could have possibly imagined that would be their last chance to watch a Bruins game in person for a year. The phrases “social distancing,” “quarantining” and “COVID-19” had not yet cemented their presence into our collective lexicon.
The Bruins played the Flyers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania three days later before the league shut down indefinitely due to the pandemic.
For the next 383 days, Boston hockey fans were denied the opportunity to soak in TD Garden’s ambiance. They were unable to witness a brilliant David Pastrnak rush, an incredible Tuukka Rask save or a devastating hit by Charlie McAvoy in person.
This ruthless reality meant that these regulations did not discriminate. Every Bruins fanatic was under the same restrictions. The grizzled fans who remember Bobby Orr skating in the old Boston Garden and the young supporters sporting brand new Patrice Bergeron sweaters were both experiencing these withdrawals.
Countless New Englanders, from the fall to spring, welcome the Bruins into their homes. Watching the team becomes a part of their weekly routine. Some fans even work their schedules around these games.
But, just like every hockey fan across North America, the pandemic forced radical changes to their dockets. Even when the games resumed in the Toronto bubble, they could not experience the games at TD Garden.
There is a real argument to be made that hockey is the best sport to observe in person. There is nothing that can replace the wicked yet delightful mixture of violence, speed and beauty. The nervous energy swirling through the arena when the home team is searching for a late-game equalizer is incredible.
But the best crowd reaction occurs when their fourth-line rugged winger delivers a bone-crunching hit to the opponents’ superstar. The appreciation that bellows through the venue is enough to ignite any fire.
So, when Bruins fans were permitted to re-enter TD Garden March 25, it meant a lot more than just people being able to watch a hockey game in person. There was a poignant sense of normalcy returning to Boston.
As the Bruins took on the New York Islanders, 2,191 fans enjoyed the contest right next to the ice. While the venue was filled to 12% capacity, the building was not lacking enthusiasm.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it through it,” Todd Angilly, the man in charge of belting out The Star-Spangled Banner, told The Telegram and Gazette. “It was so emotional.”
Once the game began, those in attendance cranked the festivities and appreciation up to 11. There are so many photos of kids soaking in the evening, which immediately planted a smile onto the face of anyone watching. After what they have gone through over the past 12 plus months, and more importantly, what they have not experienced, it was a sight to behold.
After the first period, a man held a piece of paper over the woman sitting next to him. The paper read, in bolded, black capital letters, “SHE’S A NURSE” with an arrow pointing down.
It is these instances and memories that make sports such an integral part of our lives. Not just the team’s play on the ice, field or court.
The Bruins lost that game in overtime, despite being up two and, at one point, had a four-minute power play to work with. But to harp on the result would be missing the forest for the trees.
There is plenty of time to criticize the Bruins front office, coaches and players. Believe me. But there was something more important at play here.
Everyone in the arena last Thursday got a small taste of what life was like before the pandemic arrived.
And these moments will only increase from here. The Celtics welcomed fans back this past Monday. The Red Sox will have fanatics in Fenway Park when their season kicks off Friday.
It will truly be a special day when Bruins fans get to pack TD Garden to its absolute limits. The game is not the same without them, no matter how much fake crowd noise is pumped in.