SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Joel Quenneville already has a raspier-than-usual voice after the Panthers’ first two games of the season.
Screaming over crowd noise isn’t easy.
Florida is one of only three teams that is permitting fans back into arenas for the start of this season. The Panthers averaged 3,907 fans in their season-opening wins over Chicago earlier this week; Arizona averaged 2,329 in its first two home games. Dallas, which plays its opener at home Friday after a COVID-19 outbreak delayed the start of the Stars’ season, is also planning to have fans in its building.
“Our building, no matter how many people are in the building, it gets loud,” Quenneville said. “And we can sense it ... you can hear it, you can feel it and we appreciate the support that we have.”
The Panthers are unbeaten after two games — just the sixth time in the franchise’s 27-year history that has happened.
Attendance has been a punch line, not a selling point, for the Panthers for almost the entirety of their existence. They’ve been among the NHL’s bottom 10 teams in attendance in each of the last 14 seasons, the bottom five in six of the last seven.
The building is only about 20% filled — for now, that’s about the limit — but the Panthers believe those who are there have brought a boost of energy.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that they’re back watching us, and we can play in front of them,” Panthers forward Noel Acciari said. “We just want to keep getting those wins for them while they’re here and taking advantage of it.”
The Panthers’ arena was the first in the NHL to achieve the International WELL Building Institute’s top Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management. Put another way, that mark measures cleaning procedures, emergency preparedness, air quality and water quality, among other things inside buildings such as arenas.
It took months of planning for the Panthers to get there; every air filter in the building has been changed, and a front office that used to spend most of its days talking about hockey now has meetings about things like air flow and the latest numbers on how much fresh air can get into the building in a certain amount of time.
Signs detailing the safety measures are everywhere, the building — like many pro buildings are now — is totally cashless for concession and merchandise sales, and there are even little paw prints on the floors of the elevators to show people where they can stand and remain socially distant.
“Most of this stuff — I’m going to be honest with you — I never thought I would know anything about it,” Panthers Chief Operating Officer Sean McCaffrey said. “When I saw fans back in here, I was emotional. I told our team how proud of them I was. It’s been hard. Our team has worked so hard. We’re giving a couple thousand people some hope after a disastrous year.”
The Panthers worked with political officials in Broward County, Florida — their arena is county-owned — on every logistic, every plan, every detail on the way to making the return of fans a reality. And much of the plan came together in just the last few weeks, a sprint all the way to the finish.
There’s also more demand for tickets, a sign that fans are willing to buy into the safety measures.
“No, we don’t have 17,000 people in here,” Panthers Chief Commercial Officer Shawn Thornton said. “But having people in here again, it brings you back. It was almost like it was before the world went to hell.”
And Quenneville doesn’t mind having to yell again.
“You hear the support,” Quenneville said. “I’m looking forward to it getting even more boisterous as we go along.”
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