The moment in Bruins' loss that reminded us how different playoff hockey will be without fans

Scott McLaughlin
July 31, 2020 - 1:17 pm

The Bruins have now had their first taste of playing in the Toronto bubble with no fans in attendance. Their issues in Thursday night's 4-1 exhibition loss to the Blue Jackets went well beyond anything to do with the atmosphere, but there was one moment that served as a reminder of how different this experience is without fans vs. playing in a full arena.

With the Bruins trailing 3-0 midway through the second period, David Pastrnak settled a bouncing puck and slid it through Columbus goalie Elvis Merzlikins' five-hold to cut the deficit to two.

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If that happened in a packed TD Garden, the crowd could have helped turn that goal into a real momentum swing by coming alive, getting loud and helping the Bruins roll that newfound energy forward.

Even on the road, the crowd reaction the other way could have helped the Bruins, as that goal may have helped quiet a crowd that surely would have been going crazy with their team leading 3-0.

Instead, on Thursday night there was no change in atmosphere. Seemingly no change in energy. It was after goals, from either team, that you were most reminded of how different this is, and how difficult it's going to be to feel those momentum swings.

Speaking to the media on a Zoom call Friday morning, Bruins president Cam Neely highlighted that exact situation in pointing out that one of the biggest challenges for players is going to be generating their own energy to try to swing momentum.

"The biggest thing is going to be that energy that you’re going to have to somehow get from within, especially on the bench," Neely said. "I think the guys are going to have to get really lively on the bench. We talk about how if you’re down by one or two goals or down by three goals like last night for example, and you’re in your own building and you get one to get within one or two, the energy picks up in the building. We’re not going to see that. We’re not going to get that, so the players are going to have to somehow create that energy on the bench and take it over onto the ice."

Appearing on Dale and Keefe Friday, NBC analyst Mike Milbury also said he thinks the lack of fans will have a tangible effect on games. (You can listen to the full interview by clicking here.)

"I think it will (have a tangible effect)," Milbury said. "Fans can juice up a team. I mean, they can help swing momentum. You’ve heard the Garden when the Bruins are down by a couple goals and they score one to get within one and all of a sudden the place is going nuts because they think the Bruins can tie this thing up. It’s a real, tangible thing. You feel it on the bench. It gets the adrenaline pumping. So yes, it does make a difference. But hey, you’re going to have to get over it, because that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be."

The lack of atmosphere -- as much as pumped-in music and crowd noise tries to simulate the real thing -- can also affect the TV and radio broadcasts of these games, as broadcasters often feed off the crowd and the energy in the building just like players. Now there is no crowd, and the broadcasters aren't even in the building as most of them are now calling games off monitors in a studio.

Speaking to the media via Zoom, NESN play-by-play man Jack Edwards said it was a "major challenge" Thursday night for he and color commentator Andy Brickley to try to find a way to still bring energy to the broadcast and to viewers at home.

"That was a major challenge, just to feel the energy of the players and let it come through my voice and my diction," Edwards said. "And that’s going to be a continuing challenge because as the playoffs go deeper, the crowd gets more intense and you naturally raise your volume when the crowd gets louder and you sense that energy. By the third period, I felt that we were transmitting the energy of the players adequately. I look forward to the first really good, hard exchange between the Bruins and an opponent, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we react to that. I think that Brick and I are both trying to bring positive energy to our call. It’s a little bit more difficult to feel it through a monitor than it is actually to be there."

Still, everyone is obviously just happy to have hockey back and have the playoffs starting on Saturday. But it was a reminder that this "new normal" is going to take some getting used to -- for players and coaches, but also for broadcasters and viewers.

As for what the future looks like regarding playing hockey without fans, Neely said that from a business perspective it would be very difficult to play a full regular season in empty buildings. There is no date yet for when the 2020-21 season will start, and that decision may be in large part dependent on what the timeline looks like for the possibility of fans returning to arenas.

"I think it’ll be difficult to play many games without fans from a business perspective," Neely said. "We’ll wait to see when we start next year. Get through this season and see what happens next year. Everybody’s anticipating some kind of a spike in the fall. Whether that happens or not I guess remains to be seen. I don’t know if you can play too many games without fans. Everybody’s building out these models without fans, a third fans, half fans, full buildings, but it’s all speculation right now what we’re going to see by the time we think we can start next season."

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