For three months, the parking lot outside Raleigh’s PNC Arena has been a mass vaccination site where the physical effects of COVID-19 are prevented by shots in the arm.
Now the pandemic’s emotional effects will be alleviated inside PNC Arena by shots in the net.
It’s NHL playoff time in North Carolina as the Carolina Hurricanes began the first round against the Nashville Predators with a 5-2 win Monday night. Having your pro team in the playoffs is always a high time for fans, but this year it’s cause for general joy.
It’s not so much about what will happen, but what’s ending. The pandemic’s grip is easing. Normalcy is returning with a roar and, we hope, much bellowing of the horn after the Canes score. The focus has turned from shoppers in masks and health care workers wearing face shields to masked goalies and players wearing visors.
Thanks to the genius of scientists, the efforts of health care workers and the willingness of millions to roll up their sleeves, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against the dangers of COVID-19. Cases are dropping, deaths are way down and the U.S. is opening up.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a face mask outdoors or indoors and they can safely join in large gatherings. Gov. Roy Cooper has lifted the statewide mask mandate and the NHL will allow up to 12,000 fans – still wearing masks – into PNC Arena.
One wild card in this opening series is how players would react to the return of crowd noise. At the start of this COVID-abbreviated season, the Canes took the ice in what has been called the NHL’s loudest house to play before an empty house. In early March, up to 5,000 fans were allowed to enter. Now the place will be nearly two-thirds full. The postseason noise on Monday night was as stimulating as the early season silence was eerie.
Hurricanes goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic said afterward, “We had 12,000 tonight and it felt like 24 (thousand).”
“That’s how it should feel.,” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “We’ve been missing that for so long.”
The heart of the Hurricanes’ fan base is in the greater Triangle, but all of North Carolina has a reason to get behind this team as an exciting and common cause after more than a year of the pandemic’s dreariness and division. And Charlotte has some extra reasons. Six players in the Hurricanes lineup played for the minor-league Charlotte Checkers when the team won its league championship – the Calder Cup – in 2019.
Hockey players are notoriously superstitious. Don’t think beyond the game in front of you. Don’t touch the Stanley Cup until you win it. And certainly don’t celebrate before a series is over.
Fans don’t have those nervous constraints. They’ll be glad that they can see a game, that hockey game tailgating – a North Carolina innovation – is back. And as fans again file into PNC Arena by the thousands it will feel something like having a parade at the start rather than the end of the playoffs.
Brind’Amour knows about not getting ahead of yourself in hockey. As captain, he led the Hurricanes to the team’s first and only Stanley Cup championship in 2006. As he prepared to guide the team in pursuit of a second title he cautioned that despite the Hurricanes’ division-winning record, all teams start equal in the playoffs.
“Everything goes out the window,” he said. “I think you start all over at this point.”
Yet this year, as the worries of the pandemic melt in the heat of playoff hockey, his assessment applies to more than hockey. It seems to apply to life itself as isolation gives way to cheering crowds and what once was begins anew.