Syracuse Crunch opens the season in a calm and eerie way


Syracuse, NY – Since the Syracuse Crunch joined the AHL in 1994, the team have strived to create a series of memorable opening nights that stand out as individually as the snowflakes piled up outside the monument. to the dead.

Without desire or joy on their part, the team accomplished this until the most extreme end possible on Saturday night. The team’s 27th home opener was hardly seen in person, and I hope no one sees anything like it again.

After an interruption of 332 days since the end of the 2019-2020 season in the AHL by the coronavirus, the Crunch played a regular season game again on Saturday. Syracuse defeated Utica 6-1 in a game attended live by players and coaches, off-ice officials, Crunch staff, construction workers, a few members of the media and dozens of cardboard cutouts in the stands.

No live fans have been allowed as a precautionary measure in the event of a pandemic, and it is likely the team will play their 32-game regular season with empty stands.

“It’s very different. Without a doubt. But I think when the puck falls, when the game starts, everyone’s in it, ”said Crunch coach Ben Groulx. “You know there are no fans. We know how loud our fans are. They are very united. And obviously we miss it.

The walk to the game was a stark and grim reminder of the reality of the current situation. The arena at the Northern State Medical University was almost entirely dark except for a strip of blue light on part of its facade. The marquees, which usually flashed a welcoming neon to fans as they announced the night’s showdown, were turned off.

Traffic outside the arena, both for pedestrians and vehicles, was completely absent. There was no fanfare or jubilation to announce the arrival of a new season. The Utica team bus was parked outside, the only hint that there might be life behind the building’s locked doors.

At his home in Boca Raton, Florida, Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon, in a blue Crunch t-shirt, slumped in front of his television to watch the game. The long-distance support broke his streak of 26 consecutive in-person appearances in his team’s home opener.

“For the first time, I got to sit down and eat pizza and watch a hockey game,” said Dolgon, one of Syracuse’s most lively (and sometimes agitated) fans.

The pre-game buildup in the arena had the disappointing calm of a pre-season game. There were no special videos or light shows, special guests or extended pre-game introductions. The scoreboard went back to a decades-old era in the rearview mirror, playing out highlights of the Crunch’s first home opener in 1994. Tarpaulins covered in sponsor names covered the lower seats behind the benches,

Dolgon said that while promotional planning for the opening was removed from the front office’s off-season schedule, preparations were just as thorough to ensure matches can be played safely.

Most of the corridors of the war memorial were closed with curtains. Glass behind the benches and penalty benches has been removed to improve airflow. These two areas were cleaned and sanded with a strong disinfectant between periods. The public address announcer was snatched from his cramped three-way seat at the scorer’s table and moved to the stands.

“The planning here was probably as intense and careful as any,” Dolgon said. “Tonight it was about keeping him safe, getting through this season. And that’s always what we said. Let’s go through this season in good health and watch the children (the outlook) develop. “

Gabriel Fortier scored Syracuse’s first goal of the season, a shorthanded scorer just one minute after the first face-off. The “crowd” roared, a brief eruption of canned cheers that will be the soundtrack to Crunch for the highlights of Crunch.

“It’s a little weird scoring goals and it’s pretty quiet,” said Crunch captain Luke Witkowski.

A low, soft sound of false rumbles from fans was played throughout the match. Naturally, there were no in-game promotions or tatting between periods.

The lack of real emotions was most noticeable in the second half when Witkowski faced Jonah Gadjovich of Utica. Normally there would have been an instant roar from the crowd as soon as the gloves touched the ice.

But now, almost nothing. The push ended quickly and both players skated to the penalty area.

“It was different, but your adrenaline kicks in,” Witkowski said of his fight. “Most of the time when I’m fighting in front of 20,000 fans (in the NHL) or whatever, you don’t really hear the crowd anyway. You just go into combat mode.

The only constant from all other AHL seasons to this one is that the scorecards still work. When the game ended and it flashed in favor of the Crunch, the players gathered to congratulate each other and give each other glove.

“We’ve been on the pitch for three weeks so I think they were tired of training,” Groulx said of his team. “They welcomed this first game with a lot of enthusiasm, there is no doubt. You know, a lot of people are happy that we can finally play. I think hockey players are very privileged to be in this situation, they can go back to work and play.

A very unusual home game has ended, and fingers crossed and if good health permits, 15 more remain.

“I think we’re going to make the most of a very difficult situation,” Dolgon said. “If what we’re doing now makes someone happy, feels good, we’ve done something right.”

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