The first tailgater arrived at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, at 10:30 a.m. on Monday.
"By noon, I saw about 20 or 30 tents set up," said Don Waddell, Carolina Hurricanes GM and president.
When the gates opened for an 8 p.m. puck drop? You can only imagine the level of hype. And by the time the 12,000 fans got to their seats, ready to cheer on the Canes in their first-round series against the Nashville Predators, it was absolute pandemonium.
"When the guys came onto the ice for warm-ups, that's when it got insanely crazy," said season-ticket holder Patty Jasper, who, along with her husband, once put together a 530-consecutive-game attendance streak. "When the governor sounded the siren to start the game off -- usually you can hear that siren. I could not hear that siren. That's how wild it was."
Translated to TV, the visuals were jarring, if only because it looked so normal. The more than 12,000 fans in Raleigh for each of the Canes' two playoff games represent one of the largest crowds at an indoor sporting event in North America since the pandemic began. What's more, when the series -- which the Canes lead 2-0 -- shifts to Nashville tonight, there will also be more than 12,000 fans in the building.
It's exactly what hockey players have been craving. When the NHL was forced into empty-arena hockey for the 2020 postseason bubble, teams had a hard time adjusting. "Our team, personally, had a tough time getting up for the first round-robin game," one Eastern Conference player told ESPN in September. "It was hard to get guys going. You can't just snap into a playoff mentality after not playing for five months, and the first game playing in an empty arena just felt spooky."
It continued in the 2021 regular season. "They can stream that fan noise in there, and I think it does help, but it's not remotely close to having fans out there, and to ride the wave of emotion of the building," Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said in March. "Players have brought it up to me; it's a challenge."
As local governments loosened restrictions, crowds incrementally grew. It's still not an even playing field; the all-Canadian division is still operating in empty arenas, while there have been roughly 5,000 fans in Pittsburgh and New York, and nearly 10,000 in Florida.
For those lucky enough to experience the intensity of Stanley Cup playoff hockey, in nearly all its glory?
"It was electric. That's why you play," Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "You kind of forget about it -- because you haven't had it for so long. I think people also needed something to cheer about. We've had a year and a half of just junk thrown at everybody, and they let it all out last night. That's what it felt like. Yeah, they're cheering for us, but they're also just cheering that they got to go outside and root for a team, and have some sense that this is kind of normal again, and forget about all the crap that's gone on."
While it was welcome, it wasn't necessarily easy to navigate, especially on less than three days' notice. Here's the story of how the Canes pulled it off.
Throughout the pandemic, the NHL has said it will follow the lead of its medical advisers, local governments and health departments. With that, the Canes were prepared to have roughly 6,000 fans, sitting in pods. But they knew there was an opportunity for that number to increase.
"The governor [of North Carolina, Roy Cooper] is a huge hockey fan, he's become a very good friend of mine; in fact, I hosted him in my suite [for Game 1]," Waddell said. "So I can tell you that I talk to the governor on a regular basis, and his team on an even more regular basis. Last week I probably had 10-12 calls with them, so there's a lot of dialogue."
A week ago Friday, Cooper announced that North Carolina would no longer require masks or social distancing for vaccinated people and lifted capacity restrictions on indoor spaces.
The Canes' business staff sprang into action.
"We went into the weekend asking, how are we going to sell 6,000 tickets and how do we want to sell those tickets?" Waddell said. "We really put an emphasis on the lower bowl. Made some upper-bowl tickets available because of the price point for our fans, but we really wanted to sell out the lower bowl because that's where we could make the biggest impact in terms of game presentation and from our players' standpoint."
PNC Arena has a capacity of roughly 19,000 for hockey games. Despite North Carolina giving the OK for full capacity, the NHL had limitations -- including mandating that fans still wear masks.
"Nothing can be within 12 feet of the player benches or penalty boxes," Waddell said, noting there are banners blocking off those areas. "But the other thing is air quality, which is something the league instituted this year because of COVID. You have to have so much fresh air coming in from the outside. A lot of buildings, like us, that are in the South in a warm climate right now, it's not as easy as just bringing in air -- we have to bring in the air and have it chilled and take the humidity out of it, or else we will end up with bad ice conditions."
So the number was set at 12,000.
Last weekend, 20-25 Canes employees reported to their offices and worked around the clock to field calls from fans -- supplemented by plenty of coffee, candy and pizza to keep them energized.
"It was crazy, I can tell you that much," said Sara Daniel, the Canes' vice president of season tickets. "This entire past year, we've learned you can plan as much as you think you can plan but things can always change at the end."
The Canes had already gone through three iterations of playoff ticket sales. They sold out their initial manifest of pods. Then, the governor's office said they needed only two seats between pods, not three, so Carolina offered additional seats for sale. On Thursday, the Canes called all impacted accounts and asked whether they'd like to add an additional seat.
But with Friday's news?
"We had to go into overdrive to prepare," Daniel said. "We tried to take care of all of our season-ticket holders as much as we can to meet all of their needs, trying to get them as close to their regular seats as possible, and quite frankly making it as fair as possible. But one thing we found out is, you can't reset everything. There were a lot of people that got seated in the upper level that typically sit in the lower level because at the time they bought, we didn't have lower level available; then they opened up last minute. So we were trying to juggle all of that, the customer-service side with a lack of time, to get as many people in the building as quickly and safely as we could."
The Hurricanes had been one of the NHL's best business success stories before the pandemic. Their on-ice success was translating into sustained fan interest, which also meant more revenue.
During the 2018-19 season, the Canes had their four highest game-day merchandise sales in franchise history. By the time Carolina upset the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, they reported they were already at $2.5 million for new business with season-ticket sales for the 2019-20 season -- up from $400,000 at that point a year prior. Renewal rates for season tickets were at 91%, up from 72% in 2018.
"March , we were just two weeks into our renewal campaign, and we were off to an amazing start. We were pacing ahead of where we were a year prior, which was a record year for us," Daniel said. "We had so much momentum going at the time, and all of it came to a stop."
The Canes were in constant communication with season-ticket holders during the pandemic, and they wanted to offer flexibility. At any point, the fans could ask for a refund or stop their payment plans. "I was surprised at how committed everyone was," Daniel said. "Really, our renewals trended pretty well. When all is said and done, we should still be in the 90th percentile for renewals, even with a pause and a restart."
In the meantime, Carolina is already recalibrating for the second round of the playoffs, should it advance. Waddell said the team is purchasing a 500,000-ton chiller that will be able to pump chilled air into the building, which would allow attendance to increase by another 4,000 fans for any future rounds.
It's hard to imagine what 16,000 fans will sound like when 12,000 were already so passionate.
"When I had told the players on Saturday morning that we were bringing in 12,000, the guys were like, 'That's great, that's great,'" Waddell said. "But in the locker room [after Game 1], players were saying it felt like 18,000 fans, because of how strategically we filled the lower bowl. Those are seats that are right on top of you. So the players were over the moon saying it felt great to have the fans back and really felt like a sold-out crowd."
Added Jasper: "I've been in that building in the worst of days when 12,000 fans were in the building. And it's a Tuesday night, and you're looking around, and you're like, is this even 12,000 fans or is that [just] what they're saying?
"These games felt so different. It was thunderous. Every towel was waving in the air. You couldn't hear yourself think. The noise was so different than anything I had experienced. And I have been there for Game 7s and for some crazy moments, but this felt different. Maybe it's because we missed it so much."
And judging by the reaction from goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic as he was being interviewed after Game 2, that feeling is mutual: