Ever since their first youth game, NHL players have been used to playing in front of crowds, even if it was just a smattering of parents and family members in the stands. The COVID-19 pandemic robbed them of that joy for nearly a year as the arenas were empty and the postseason in August and September was held at neutral-site rinks.
Which is why Thursday night’s game against the Devils at Nassau Coliseum was so significant for the Islanders. It marked the first time this season fans were allowed into their building as the organization hosted 1,000 Northwell Health front-line workers and their families in appreciation for their dedicated work and sacrifices through the pandemic.
The Islanders’ first game in front of fans — a sellout of 1,800 — was a 2-1 win at Prudential Center on March 2 as the Devils opened their doors for the first time to a crowd limited to 10% of that building’s capacity.
"That’s why we play the game," right wing Jordan Eberle said. "That’s what makes it so exciting when you get the fans in the stands. We had a little bit of it in New Jersey the other night and you could feel the atmosphere a little bit. Super excited to get back to that. I know the Long Island faithful, there’s some excitement how well we’re doing. We want to continue to do that and give them something to cheer about. I know all the guys in the room are super excited for the faithful to get back."
The Islanders entered Thursday’s game, which concluded a five-game homestand, in first place in the East Division with a six-game winning streak and an 8-0-1 streak.
Their first game in front of paying season-ticket holders will be next Thursday against the Flyers. The Coliseum is also allowed to host at 10% of capacity so 1,391 tickets were made available.
"It’s really exciting," defenseman Ryan Pulock said. "Just in general that they’re able to bring fans back, and, for us, to have our fans back in the building. It’s big for us. We like to feed off that momentum. Obviously, it’s a limited amount but I’m sure they’ll be there ready to bring the noise. So, we all look forward to that."
Added coach Barry Trotz, "It’ll be nice. It really will, because there’s an energy that the fans bring to our game, to the players, to the atmosphere that you can’t replicate. I know the NHL and TV is doing an absolutely great job of providing that [with fake crowd noise]. But the in-the-rink experience will be needed for the players, for every 31 teams that are playing."
The chance to first play in front of the Northwell Health front-line workers was important to the Islanders.
"To be playing in front of our home fans, it’s going to be very special," defenseman Nick Leddy said. "The occasion tonight will make it even more special.
"Extremely special. First responders, the dedication, what them and their families have gone through, it will definitely make it more special for us. The biggest thing is I just want to say thank you to them for their dedication, hard work and the risk they’ve taken for the last year. I know me and the team really appreciate it for sure."
Center Brock Nelson added, "It will be nice to give back a bit for what they’ve been doing for everybody to make it. It will be nice to have some action. Some noise. Some real noise, not the generated noise. Hopefully, we can feed off of that."