Excitement is building for the Western Hockey League‘s return as well as the prospect of having fans in the stands when the puck drops.
The fan experience will likely be somewhat different, though, with a variety of new measures in place to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Saskatoon Blades are set to open the season on Jan. 8, and if all goes according to plan, fans will be in attendance, albeit at a limited capacity.
“I think we’re going to be the first live sporting event (with fans) potentially in Western Canada since March, so it’s thrilling,” said Blades director of business operations Tyler Wawryk.
The exact number of fans who will be permitted inside SaskTel Centre is yet to be determined. In the meantime, the Blades are exploring a number of different seating models that would adhere to any rules set out by the provincial government and the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
One model is a so-called “checkerboard” pattern, which would see groups of up to six fans from the same household separated by two-metre buffer zones on all sides with every other row of seats blocked off.
Another option features larger cohort pods of anywhere between 10 and 15 fans, allowing friends, neighbours or co-workers to be seated together. A third plan could see seats sold in pairs with every other pair left empty.
The Blades are also looking at the possibility of dividing the arena into five distinct fan zones, based on the number of public entrances at SaskTel Centre.
Under that model, “you’ll be assigned a specific entrance and you’ll have a specific washroom and concession that you’ll be able to use in your zone in the arena but you won’t be able to walk freely throughout the entire arena,” Wawryk said.
Traffic control will be a key component of any plan, especially on the concourse where interactive displays, merchandise booths and other attractions may be streamlined.
“We’ll be looking at trying to divide those up into those zones if we have to and some of them won’t be interactive. They’ll just be static displays where you can view things but maybe you won’t be able to enter in a draw or play a game at some of those spaces,” Wawryk said, adding that some contests and interactive games will instead incorporate the arena’s scoreboard video screens and fans’ mobile devices during breaks in play.
Although some aspects of the fan experience will be different the on-ice product will be the same and while it remains to be seen just how many people show up to the first game, the Blades can’t wait to welcome them back.
“Hopefully our fans take notice and get excited to come out to the rink and obviously everybody’s going to do their part to make sure that it’s a safe environment for people to be around,” head coach Mitch Love said.
There’s a certain excitement to entering uncharted waters, Wawryk adds.
“We get to kind of start from scratch a little bit, hopefully reach a lot of new people in our community and I know there’s going to be lots of eyes on us when we do open up, being the biggest venue in the province in terms of hockey arenas,” he said.
While there’s still plenty of work ahead, the distant roar of the crowd is slowly starting to grow louder.