‘They really do exist’: Coyotes fans welcome in-person experience

Although a limited number of fans were allowed to watch Saturday’s game between the Arizona Coyotes and the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena, it was the largest sports crowd in Arizona since Nov.15, when the Arizona Cardinals hosted 4,200 fans at State Farm Stadium. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

In front of 2,274 mask-wearing fans Saturday, the Arizona Coyotes defeated the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena in Glendale. Other COVID-19 precautions included digital ticketing and cashless transactions. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE – Linda Riggins was first in line at Gate 3 before the Arizona Coyotes’ season opener at Gila River Arena.

Riggins, a season ticket holder, and her son, Keith Traub, arrived three-and-a-half hours early. They were ready for hockey.

“I was just so happy to be there,” Riggins said. “My son was in seventh heaven, and it was just great. That means everything to me.”

Riggins was one of 2,274 fans in attendance Thursday, during the 4-3 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks.

Two days later, the Coyotes drew 2,384 fans for a 5-3 win over San Jose. Saturday’s game was the largest attended sporting event in Arizona since Nov. 15, when the Arizona Cardinals hosted as many as 4,200 fans at State Farm Stadium.

Before the puck dropped Thursday, the organization honored those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the lights dimmed and everyone turned their attention to the scoreboard, Coyotes President and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez presented a message to health workers, dedicating the team’s 25th anniversary season to them.

When the Coyotes stepped onto the ice in front of fans for the first time in 320 days, Riggins couldn’t believe the sight in front of her.

“You walked through and you finally thought, ‘Wow!’ she said. “Just about everybody there, including me, was yelling, screaming and chapping. We were so excited to see them. We were like, ‘Hey, they really do exist! Here they are!’”

The Coyotes were the first team of the 2020-21 NHL season to host fans at a home game. As of Tuesday, the Coyotes, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars were the only three teams that have been allowed by local authorities to welcome socially distanced, masked-up fans.

Before entering Gila River Arena, fans checked in and filled out a series of health survey questions through CLEAR’s Health Pass app to verify a person’s identity and reduce the risk of exposure to the coronovirus that causes COVID-19.

A wide range of safety measures were utilized for reopening, including socially distanced seating arrangements, complete digital ticketing, cashless transactions and the installation of hand sanitizer stations throughout the arena.

Riggins and her son had no difficulty finding and getting comfortable in their assigned seats in Section 115.

“I thought it was pretty well-organized,” Riggins said. “They had a lot of sanitation stations where you could wash your hands. The lines were all marked down for where you couldn’t be on top of people. I even saw a lady that was washing the railings periodically that people had handled when they walked down the stairs.”

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Fans were seated in the lower bowl and minisuites and were not allowed to stand near the glass boards during the pregame skate and warmups. The first five rows in each section were covered by tarps with advertisements.

Howler, the Coyotes’ mascot, wore a mask and appeared a few times on the scoreboard. The Coyotes Crew did not take part in any interactions with fans – meaning no T-shirt tosses or intermission games on the ice. During the TV timeouts, they helped with on-ice scraping and shoveling while wearing masks and gloves.

The Coyotes were pleased to receive some cheers from the fans right away.

“It was louder than expected,” forward Tyler Pitlick told Fox Sports Arizona’s Todd Walsh during the first intermission, which was followed by an applause from the crowd.

The Coyotes’ first goal of the season came from forward Conor Garland at 15:46 of the second period on the power play, and fans erupted.

“The whole arena just blew up,” Riggins said. “There was laughing and clapping and howling. It was awesome.”

The atmosphere reminded Garland of his time with the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League.

“It surprisingly looked pretty good,” Garland said. “The arena staff did a great job. The way they had everyone spread out, it looked like a pretty good crowd. It took me back to my Tucson and junior days and that’s what the crowds looked like in the lower bowl, so I liked it. … For us to have fans in the building and be able to be back to entertain people, I think that’s great.”

Although piped-in crowd noise was used, the Coyotes could hear the cheering, especially during the final four minutes in regulation. Arizona scored a pair of goals, including the game-tying goal with 3.2 seconds left from Coyotes forward Phil Kessel.

“It was awesome,” said Coyotes forward Clayton Keller, who scored the Coyotes’ second goal Thursday night. “I think all of us were a little surprised, it felt like there were a lot more people there. We were so pumped to see that. To have the fans back in the building was unbelievable. Friends of mine and our teammates that were able to come to the game were all just so pumped. We’re really looking forward to the rest of the home games in front of the awesome fans we have.”

On Saturday, Coyotes goaltender Antti Raanta, who made his first start of the season, enjoyed the fans’ presence in a 31-save performance.

“It definitely feels so much better than what it was in the bubble,” Raanta said. “It’s super nice to go on the ice and see some people in there, hearing some yells and some cheers for us. It gives you a lot more than what an empty building would do. It’s been nice to see the fans again. They gave us a lot of extra energy in the games.”

Fans said they enjoyed the change of pace for the shortened season. Not only does it allow the team to generate some revenue, it allows fans to experience something they’ve missed for nearly a year.

“Us players, we always appreciate playing in front of a lot of fans,” Coyotes forward Derick Brassard said. They make the atmosphere, they make the game great. Hopefully in the next few months we can play in every building around the league with fans in the stands.”

For now, the attendance has been limited to 2,500 fans to accommodate social distancing. The Coyotes first announced they would host a maximum of 3,450 fans for the team’s six January home games at Gila River Arena.

The team will determine the seating capacity for each month of the season, in accordance with the guidelines of Gila River Arena and the city of Glendale.

Michael Gutnick My-kull Gut-nick
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Michael Gutnick is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sports broadcast journalism and a minor in mathematics. He is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.