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In Front Of 2,000 Fans, Columbus Blue Jackets Finally Break Losing Streak

Alexandre Texier of the Columbus Blue Jackets, left, carries the puck up ice as Adam Erne of the Detroit Red Wings defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Columbus.
Jay LaPrete
Alexandre Texier of the Columbus Blue Jackets, left, carries the puck up ice as Adam Erne of the Detroit Red Wings defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Columbus.

New rules on mass gatherings signed on Tuesday mean indoor sports venues can be up to 25% capacity starting immediately. That night, the Columbus Blue Jackets went back to the ice in front of fans for the first time since last March.

A half hour before the doors opened, Zachary Hunter of Columbus was in line and excited.

“Beyond. It’s been 366 days since we’ve been in Nationwide. Not that I’m counting or anything," Hunter said.

The Jackets haven't played a home game in front of fans since March 1, 2020. Alongside Hunter, all in team jerseys, were his son Samuel and his wife Leah, ready to be among the fans that support the four lines of players on the ice.

“If the 5th Line means half as much to the players as the players do to the 5th Line, then we’re out of this slump," Leah Hunter said.

Leah’s mother Pam White came all the way from West Virginia. “And as part of the 5th Line, I traveled four hours just to see these Jackets," White said.

First in line on the other side of Nationwide Arena was Jess Machan and Elijah Urbanek of Gahanna, both clad in white Columbus jerseys.

“I’m super excited," Machan said. “It’s been a year," Urbanek added.

Season ticket holders were given priority access for this first game with fans in the stands. But Penny Lascola bought seats the day of the game on the NHL’s resale site.

“It’s exciting. We actually got club-level tickets for a really good price so it’s pretty exciting," Lascola said. "I’m excited to be back. We definitely need this win."

Despite the new Ohio Department of Health orders on spectators, Nationwide Arena was at just 10% of capacity based on its previous reopening plans. All who came into the arena had to do an online health survey with standard questions about COVID exposure and possible symptoms. Fans got temperature screenings and presented mobile-only tickets.

The entire arena was cashless, with reverse ATMs providing prepaid debit cards for those didn’t have cards with them.

Seats were sold in pods, separated by at least six feet. Fans were asked not to hang out in the concourses. And masks are required for all – even the mascot Stinger wore a mask over his trademark grimace in announcements on the Jumbotron about handwashing and maintaining distance.

While these fans were happy to get back to the usual CBJ routines, it’s hard for 1,953 attendees to make the same wall of sound from "Let's Go Jackets" that a sell-out crowd of 19,000 can produce. In the 2019 playoff games, Nationwide Arena was one of the loudest places in the NHL.

An order in August from Gov. Mike DeWine limited indoor sports and entertainment venues to 300 people or 15% of fixed seated capacity – whichever was less.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were the first pro team in Ohio to bring back more fans with a variance for 10%, or just under 2,000 people, with a boost last month to 14% – a little over 2,700 spectators.

The new order allows 25% capacity for the Jackets’ next home game March 9. The Blue Jackets’ vice president of communications and team services Todd Sharrock says they’re taking all this one step at a time.

“I don't think we've looked too far ahead to 100% at this point, other than to say that our hope and expectation is by next season, the ‘21-‘22 season, that we'll be back to, you know, having welcoming 18,000 fans back into the building," Sharrock said.

Sharrock also said the team needs the boost the fans can bring.

“These guys, you know, they're entertainers. They want to entertain. They want to play in front of people and they feed off of that and they can feed off of it," Sharrock said. "I've heard guys say to win on the road, even if the crowd's against you, you can feed off of that as well.”

Jackets fan Chris Dereskiewicz said he felt ready to come back for an in-person game.

“I mean, there’s only 10% and you got a bunch of space. You go to the grocery store and you’re coming close, right?” Dereskiewicz said.

Columbus resident Hannah Crabtree agreed. “I think it’s good," she said. "I trust the state’s judgment and I’m double-masked tonight. So I think it’s going to be fine.”

Hunter said he's been at the head of the line for a while.

“I’m a health care professional. And I’ve, we’ve been on the front of this thing since the beginning. And I think it’s time," Hunter said.

No fans in the arena for a year means the team – like most businesses, including those around sports and entertainment arenas – took a big financial hit in this pandemic. But Sharrock said the Jackets are well-positioned to move forward.

And they did on the ice, anyway: The Jackets snapped a five-game losing streak with a 4-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings.