COVID crowd restrictions: Reducing the noise of fans from a roar to background chatter
Step into an ice rink and you are immediately struck by the noise levels.
Packing two sets of highly partisan fans into seats either side above the ice pad can create a gladiatorial atmosphere which teams either thrive on, or cower from.
Strip those numbers down to just 200 instead of 2000 and you are left with a husk of a game where the roars of approval are reduced to ripples of chatter.
Top flight ice hockey in Scotland started 2022 with a derby between Fife Flyers and Dundee Stars on Monday night - the first staged under the Scottish Government’s restrictions on attendances.
It was a surreal experience.
At times it felt as if we were logging into people’s private conversations which fizzled out before fully reaching the other side of the ice pad.
Key moments of the game - a near miss here, a flashpoint there, even two goals in 30 seconds which would have one set of fans yelling with delight and the other half screaming with despair - all withered.
And for the fans watching the live stream at home, it must have been a very detached, two-dimensional experience.
“It was great to have hockey back,” said Todd Dutiaume, head coach of Fife Flyers, “but I doubt our fans are used to watching hockey from their couch. They want to be back rinkside soon.”
Getting there may take time.
The arbitrary limit placed on attendances at indoor events remains in place until January 16. The fear among many within ice hockey is that it will, at best, be raised only incrementally, or, at worst, remain in place longer.
Either outcome will have a significant impact on Scotland’s top flight teams, Fife, Dundee, and Glasgow Clan.
More than one observer at Monday’s game couldn’t help but note there were fewer people allowed in the stands than there were on the ice pad for public skating sessions, while down south 3000 darts fans were packed tightly into one room for the championship finals.
And those numbers matter when your club’s finances are based on gate receipts.
Ice hockey’s Christmas schedules are built around derbies which see all three teams going head to head across all three rinks. Minimal travel and maximum attendances - and quite often the ‘house full’ signs are dusted off as fans make the most of the holidays.
Not this year.
Christmas games were postponed, as teams looked to salvage what they could from them when fans are allowed to return, but the bumper holiday period crowd has already been lost. Staging them in early February or March simply turns them into just another midweek game.
It’s a fine balancing act.
The three Scottish clubs cannot eat much deeper into their schedules without running into real congestion problems down the road, but neither can they afford to play under current restrictions.
At Dundee, the soundtrack of cheers and chants, chirps and celebrations turned mute as home fans sat in tiny pockets, separated and socially distanced, while the ‘away’ side of the arena, normally filled by hundreds of travelling Fife fans, was behind barriers and out of bounds.
It was the strangest experience for all.
Dutiaume admitted, he felt some jitters as he stepped on the bench for the first time since mid-December.
“I was aware of shouting more - crowds drown a lot of that out,” he said. “The noise generated when we play well is fantastic, and the guys feed off that.
“Tonight we had to generate our own atmosphere. It felt like we were just stepping back after our year out during the pandemic.”Flyers won the game 6-3 with five of their goals coming in the second period - two of them inside 30 seconds. Their goals were met with total silence.
That result was all the more remarkable considering the extent of the disruption the team has endured since it last hit the ice on December 12.
Dutiaume had so many players and staff members testing positive or self isolating that it took until January 1 to stage a full training session.
“Guys got on the ice and fired pucks around, but we couldn’t train as a team,” he said.
The irony of finally signing new players and the fans not being able to see them play wasn’t lost on the coach either.
Brandon Magee could not have envisaged netting a fine goal on his debut without a single fan present to see it.
He and Tommi Jokinen arrived in the middle of the December mini-shutdown, and had to wait a number of days before they could even meet their new team-mates let alone hit the ice.
Flyers know it’s their turn to skate out in front of 200 fans when Belfast Giants come to Kirkcaldy on Saturday.
While live streams will bring in revenue, the online version cannot cover the losses sustained at the gate - and that is a growing area of concern for many within the sport.
Ice hockey doesn’t have a major sponsor pumping in substantial sums of cash.
It doesn’t have television deals which deliver hefty sums into bank accounts.
It relies on local sponsors, fans and 50-50 draws. The same is true for every ‘minority’ sport in Scotland.
There has to be a re-think on the limits on the numbers of fans allowed at indoor events - perhaps a percentage of a club’s average gate instead of a number plucked out of thin air?
There has to be that compromise otherwise there may be no sport left to return to.