Mitch Marner has never played a game without fans.
Even as a kid trying to hone his skills in frigid minor hockey arenas, there was always a parent, a sibling, a friend or even strangers in the stands watching the future star winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But as government and health officials scramble to try and contain the COVID-19 outbreak around the world, NHL players are facing the very real possibility of battling behind closed doors.
“It’d be weird,” Marner said earlier this week. “Growing up, you’ve never played an empty stadium or empty arena. You always had someone there to watch. It’d be interesting … we’ll see what happens.”
And for at least two teams, it’s now a reality.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have announced late Wednesday afternoon they will play their home games, including Thursday’s contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins, without fans after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he will be issuing an order regarding “mass gatherings” in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Blue Jackets said they will abide by the forthcoming ban as long as it’s in effect.
Hockey leagues in Germany and Austria have already cancelled the rest of their seasons and playoffs, while a number of other overseas sporting events have been played without fans.
The NBA’s Golden State Warriors will face the Brooklyn Nets at home Thursday in the league’s first game minus spectators after San Francisco’s mayor banned all gatherings of 1,000 people for more for two weeks.
The NHL’s San Jose Sharks — located in a county that’s given a thumbs down to similar gatherings for the rest of the month — are currently on the road, but have home dates scheduled March 19 against Montreal, March 21 against Boston and March 29 against Arizona.
Like the Blue Jackets, the Sharks could decide to play the games without fans, find a neutral site or play the games on the road.
“It would be weird,” Montreal defenceman Jeff Petry said. “It would be weird to play in that atmosphere — that lack of atmosphere.”
The NCAA announced Wednesday it would be holding the high-profile March Madness men’s and women’s basketball tournaments without fans, next week’s world figure skating championships in Montreal have been called off, and baseball’s Mariners have moved their games at the end of the month out of Seattle after that city’s mayor banned large gatherings.
The Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips announced the junior team will play their final regular-season home game on March 20 without fans after Washington state banned large group events in its county.
Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infection control physician at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, said closing venues to fans will reduce the likelihood of transmission.
“Given the direction we’re headed in, and given perhaps the short-term nature of this, although we can’t say for sure how long this will last, I think most people would agree now that limiting interaction and sporting events is a good thing,” Vaisman said. “It’s necessary to try to slow down the virus.”
Most people diagnosed with COVID-19 experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority of those who contract the virus recover. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the risk to the general population is low.
But for some, including those 65 years of age and over, those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions, the illness can be much more severe. Among the Canadians diagnosed with the illness, so far fewer than 15 per cent have required hospitalization.
“It’s a tough situation,” Vancouver Canucks winger Tyler Toffoli said. “Everybody is trying to take precautions needed.”
“It’d be obviously much different,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews added of fan-less contests. “(They’re) obviously a huge part of the game. That wouldn’t be too fun.”
The NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer all restricted access to locker-rooms earlier this week, including members of the media, as a precaution.
The next steps, which started in earnest Wednesday across North American sports, are more drastic.
“No question you want to play with people in the building,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “There’s a lot of circumstances that go into to it. I hate playing the ‘what if’ game.”
Jason Spezza said playing in front of no fans is better than having games cancelled altogether.
“You try not to let your mind wander too far,” said Toronto’s veteran centre. “As players we still want to play games. We’ll see where this goes.”
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said it would be difficult to get up for games in front of 20,000 empty seats.
“But it’s our job,” he said. “It’s what we do. We come to the rink, we’re ready to play.
“(But) we’d be better off if the building was filled.”
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