Observations From A Socially-Distanced Hockey Game

For the first time in 13 months I stepped foot inside the PPL Center to take in a Lehigh Valley Phantoms game. The feelings were hard to describe. Excited to be back at a place that has more or less been a second home the past few years, yet the underlying nervousness because, ya know, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

First and foremost, the wait to get inside the building. For those that are familiar, if you have a parking pass you can park in the deck attached to the arena and take the elevator down then wait in the foyer packed in like sardines until the gates open. Luckily, that wasn’t the case during the pandemic. Instead, everyone packed outside the front doors. While 90% of folks were wearing their masks even outside, it hit me like a ton of bricks that we were all in a compact line waiting to enter. The doors only opened half an hour before puck drop compared to the usual hour. The theory seemed to be sound, as it’s less time in the building, but that means the lines outside got pretty big. Guess it wasn’t too bad because it was outside, but if they had a guard or two outside to keep things orderly that may have been an improvement.

Speaking of masks, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone was wearing their masks throughout the game. We’ve all seen games on TV when half the people they put the camera on don’t have a mask on. Most people wore them by choice, but even the few stubborn assholes who feel the need to take it off, were politely reminded by the ushers, who were walking up and down the aisles throughout that game, to put them on.

I double masked and had a bottle of hand sanitizer that I was applying like it was going out of style. The distanced seating in general admission was fine. I was in section 106, pretty much on the goal line of the opponent’s net. It seemed to be two pods per row with every other row empty with a weird zigzag pattern throughout the section. The people behind me were at the very end, I was near the middle of the section and the other people in my row were on the end then the people below me were on the end the the others were near the middle. spaced out with nobody directly in front of behind you. A way to get the most people in the building yet still spaced out. Not too shabby.

Notice to anyone who is heading to a game in the next few weeks, make sure you eat in advance. Pretty much everything is closed. The burger joint across from the team store and little place behind section 106 were the only food options open. No Vince’s, no Chickie’s & Pete’s fries, no Dippin’ Dots, nothing. There may have been alcohol. The only time I passed it nobody was there, but it did seem set up to serve.

The lower amount of people in the building was certainly eerie at first. In a typical year, walking through the corridors of the PPL Center is a slow, crowded process. Though, with only 25% capacity, there was plenty of room to walk unmolested.

The one thing I did notice was missing was the fan cam. Usually during play stoppages there’s a camera that pans the crowd and the fans go crazy, but that was noticeably absent. Probably as a way to keep people in their seats.

I got a bottle of water during the first intermission, $3.75 by the way, and for a split second took my mask off in the second period to take a sip and oh boy what a feeling. Being in a public space surrounded by people without a mask may have been one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever had. Immediately put the mask back on and sat there with shell shock like that meme with the cat and the helicopters for a few seconds before getting back into the game.

Overall it was a great experience. The cooperation from everyone involved, both fans and employees, helped tremendously. In my mind I was fully expecting to see people maskless or being combative about the rules but I didn’t see any of that. A massive shoutout to all the workers in the building. From all the concession stands to ushers to security, they are all risking their health for us to be entertained by the hockey game.

It was only my second sporting event in the past year after attending an IronPigs taxi squad game during the summer. Even though I miss it dearly, Not sure how many more games I’ll catch live for the rest of the season. Hopefully this one will sooth the craving until next year when by any luck everything will be getting back to normal.

By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)

Photo credit: Dan Esche

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