No flying octopi, but 750 fans thrilled to watch Detroit Red Wings in person

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez | Detroit Free Press

Hello, Hockeytown.

Welcome back. It has been awhile. Three hundred sixty-four days to be exact. But who’s counting?

Yep, it had been almost exactly one year since the Detroit Red Wings hosted a sizable gathering and lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, 5-2, on March 10, 2020 before 17,511 fans at Little Caesars Arena.

The Wings have had some fans at games this season. But the crowd of 750 fans at Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning marked the first time honest-to-goodness fans could buy tickets to watch their beloved 11-time Stanley Cup champions skate, spit, sweat, score and scrap.

Tuesday also marked the most fans to watch the Wings at LCA since COVID-19 shut down the sports world shortly after their loss to Carolina, and curbed attendance at sports venues across the country.

And let me tell you something about Tuesday: It was glorious. It was beautiful. Sure, 750 people scattered throughout an arena meant for 19,515 doesn’t look like much.

But watching those people come to their feet to applaud Dylan Larkin’s snap-shot goal off a great feed from Robby Fabbri, or roar their approval of Anthony Mantha’s fight with Erik Cernak in an inspired second period was not only joyful, but also a welcome sight few of us have seen in the past year.

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I’ve covered Tigers games at Comerica Park and Lions games at Ford Field, either with no fans at all or just a smattering of friends and family of the team. But Tuesday was different because there was finally a contingent of fans who could make enough noise to be heard.

A few minutes before fans were let into the arena, Anthony Moldovan and Tammy Pitylak sat outside the LCA entrance. The Romulus couple arrived downtown early to eat at Harry’s Detroit Bar and Grill before heading to the stadium clad in their Wings, Tigers and Lions gear.

They eagerly waited to walk through the LCA doors for the first time since they attended the home opener against Dallas on Oct. 5, 2019. That’s 521 days. And that’s way too long for someone like Moldovan who has followed the Wings from Olympia Stadium to Joe Louis Arena to LCA.

“Very excited just to be here,” Moldovan said. “I miss hockey. I’m a fan of old-time hockey in the ’70s.”

During the intermissions on the concourse, there were familiar moments of the normal bustle of fans lining up for food and merchandise. But that only occurred in clusters because most of the concession areas were closed, giving the arena a half-normal, half-ghost town feel along the concourse.

“It feels a little odd,” said Jeff Wills of Rochester. “The amount of people here is a lot less than I’m used to. Even when they’re not playing as good, like right now, it’s still pretty packed.”

Roughly 500 tickets ranging from about $75 to $125 went on sale last week for each of the Wings’ eight home games in March. Chris Granger, Ilitch Holdings’ group president for sports and entertainment, said the vast majority of those tickets were sold within 24 hours and were almost sold out within 48 hours — for a team going through a lengthy rebuild and at the bottom of the standings.

“I think all of us are looking for some return to normalcy,” Granger said. “And I think the opportunity to go to live sporting events provides us with a bit of an escape, a bit of a return of normalcy, and a bit of fresh air and fun during a really difficult last 12 months for the world.”

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It’s hard to remember what normal was. At a Wings game, it meant an octopus on the ice in the playoffs and nearly 20,000 people singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It also meant Karen Newman belting out the national anthem, which she did Tuesday to a standing ovation. One girl held a homemade sign that read, “We Missed You” with the numbers of Larkin and goalie Thomas Greiss.

Sometimes, playing the defending champs is enough to get a team going. But it helps to have a few friendly faces cheering you on.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Larkin said of the fans’ energy and presence. “Some fans coming back, it was great to see them and great to see them socially distanced and spread out. Saw a lot of kids at the game.

“So it’s exciting to have us moving in the right direction. And the rink staff are doing everything they can to make it safe for them, for the fans to enjoy the game. So it was great to have them back tonight.”

Coach Jeff Blashill said Tuesday’s game was a step closer to having more fans in the stadium.

“If we can continue to take gradual steps to getting more people in the building, it’s a better game,” he said. “I think part of what makes sports special is the interaction with the fans. The momentum that fans give is special.

“We’ve had to play in empty arenas and if anybody says it’s the same, they’re lying. It’s not the same. When fans are in the building, it’s way better. I think the increase in fans tonight was great, and hopefully we can keep taking steps towards that.”

No one knows what’s going to happen. Moldovan jumped at the chance to attend Tuesday’s game because he was worried a COVID spike on St. Patrick’s Day next week might lead to another shutdown. Granger isn’t sure of the plan for April ticket sales, though he said, “If and when the capacity is allowed to increase, we’ll be ready for it.”

For now, Granger said, the overarching concern for the Wings is to focus on safety as they reintroduce fans to their venue. The team has worked closely with the NHL and every other pro league as well as college sports and venues around the country to learn what works best as fans return.

“Beyond that, it’s fun to come back to a game,” Granger said. “It’s also a unique experience to come to a game when there are so few people there who are allowed to the venue.

“So I think what you’ll find is the people who are coming to the games are having a great time because it is such a different experience. It’s something they haven’t been able to do for some time and people are really enjoying it.”

After the first period, fans emerged from their seats and walked around the concourse. Little kids stumbled around following their parents. Families and friends huddled and talked. Many searched for food and drink options. Just about everyone had smiles on their faces when I asked Wills what he missed most after watching his first period of hockey since he attended a 3-1 win over the Boston Bruins on Feb. 9, 2020.

“Just the atmosphere and just trying to get back,” he said. “I know there’s not many people but it’s still a chance to watch some hockey and watch the Wings play.”

On Tuesday, that was more than enough.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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