For the second year in a row, it appears as though most hockey fans will have to make do with watching the NHL playoffs from their own homes as COVID-19 puts a damper on the fun atmosphere that usually grips the cities involved.
The Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers start their best-of-seven series at Rogers Place Wednesday night while the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs start Thursday at Scotiabank Arena — playing against each other in the playoffs for the first time since 1979.
However, with Canada grappling with the third wave of COVID-19, most provinces have restrictions or stay-at-home orders in place which has forced the closures of restaurants and bars, where fans would gather together to watch their teams.
There will be no fans in the stands or large outdoor tailgate parties that cities like Toronto and Edmonton have been known to do in the past, either.
But in a stroke of good news, Quebec announced Tuesday it would allow for up to 12 per cent capacity in the Bell Centre if the Canadiens-Leafs play a Game 6. Quebec said restaurant patios, as well as the arena opening can begin May 28.
The NHL put in place an all-Canadian division for the first time ever for the shortened 2021 season as travel restrictions made it unfeasible for Canadian teams to go back and forth across the U.S. border. While some arenas in the U.S. allowed fans, none were allowed for the seven Canadian teams.
While politicians and leaders are calling on fans to respect the restrictions in place, restaurants in the four cities are voicing their disappointment with missing out on what some call a crucial revenue avenue for them.
“For us, it’s a disaster,” said Peter Sergakis, who owns multiple sports bars in Montreal. He said each one of his 40 establishments can bring in $25,000 in revenue during a Canadiens playoff game.
The vice president of operations for Pump Hospitality Co., which owns four restaurants in the GTA, said being unable to open for the playoffs this year is a “huge miss” not only for revenue, but for the community.
“The sense of community when a Toronto team of any sport is in the playoffs is so powerful,” Victoria Fournier told Global News Tuesday. “The vibe is contagious and when you hear the buzzer sounding followed by the roar of guests who are just so excited to be there, watching that game, you can’t help but get excited yourself — sports lover or not.”
Fournier added they’ve been lucky throughout the pandemic with lots of loyal customers ordering takeout and delivery but with no reopening plans in sight, especially during the Leafs playoff run, she said it’s a missed opportunity. Most seasons, her restaurants would offer food specials and contests and prizes.
The warmer weather has at least given some fans the opportunity to continue their traditions of backyard viewing parties – albeit with smaller crowds this year.
In Edmonton, Gerry Haracsi usually hosts backyard viewing parties for family and friends and said it’s disappointing he won’t be able to do it this year.
However, there is some hope that some restrictions will be lifted in the city if cases keep trending downwards, in which case, Haracsi told Global News, he would accommodate as many people as will be allowed.
Regardless however many people are in the backyard though, “we’ll still be loud,” said Haracsi.
“We’ll just continue to support and have fun and do what we can do.”
Leafs fans answered on Twitter with similar sentiments.
“I’ll be watching outside with my family on our big screen with a fire and pizza,” said Twitter user @pink_jillian.
“… I’ll be watching the Leafs/Habs on the big screen and sipping on some whiskey,” said @kingstonian84.
Most fans also said they’d be ordering from their favourite restaurants to support them while supporting their favourite teams.
In Edmonton, Jeff Ottmeier has been standing outside waving an Oilers flag on a busy street wearing head-to-toe Oilers gear to show his support for his favourite team on game days — even in the winter.
Despite losing his job due to COVID, Ottmeier said he started coming out to “lift the spirits of the community.”
He said the outpour from the community has been “humbling,” receiving everything from honks and thumbs up to people telling him they drive out of their way to see him.
“The Oilers don’t have anybody in the building. This is our way of showing them they’re still not alone,” Ottmeier continued.
Teams are also doing what they can to keep fans involved.
The Jets have a number of fan initiatives for the playoffs including getting fans to submit short video messages for players to see on TV screens along the entrance to the home dressing rooms.
The Leafs also announced a bunch of fan initiatives on Wednesday including the “Leafs digital arena” through the team’s app where fans can chat with each, play trivia games and make predictions. There’s a chance for fans to win a Leafs Forever Playoff Kit. Finally, there’s Leafs Nation Playoff HQ, where fans can download Leafs themed social media banners, profile photos and video conferencing backgrounds.
And finally, in keeping up with tradition Toronto Mayor John Tory and Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante made a bet on their respective teams. On the line are:
- Bragging rights
- mayor of the losing city has to raise the winning team’s flag at their City Hall
- Each mayor will be donating $500 to their local team’s charity and the losing mayor will donate an additional $500.
- Losing mayor will send the winning mayor some local beer to the winning mayor’s office
- Losing mayor will send of their city’s best food to the winning mayor’s office
“Mayor Tory is looking forward to enjoying some smoked meat sandwiches when the Leafs win while Mayor Plante is looking forward to enjoying a St. Lawrence Market peameal bacon sandwich when the Habs win,” a press release said Wednesday.