The Blue Jackets have never taken the 5th Line for granted, but the last few weeks have made it clear just how much the fans mean to the players who take the ice each and every night to represent the city of Columbus.
While there's still been a cannon fired after every goal in Nationwide Arena thiis season, those who are about to rock simply haven't been there to be saluted. There's been no roar of the crowd to lift the team in tense moments, no buzz to draw the players into the game as opening faceoff nears.
But that will change starting March 2 after the team announced Saturday that the Ohio Department of Health has approved the team's plans to welcome 10 percent of capacity -- 1,953 fans -- to games in Nationwide Arena starting with that night's game vs. Detroit. For full details including ticket info and arena protocols regarding COVID-19, visit BlueJackets.com/WelcomeBack.
And it's fair to say just about everyone in the Blue Jackets organization is excited to say those words.
"Even just (around) 2,000 fans, we are pretty pumped about," said captain Nick Foligno, who as much as anyone has become accustomed to playing in front of the raucous downtown barn. "We've never taken the fans for granted, but you really realize when they're not in the building the energy that gets sucked out. We're just looking forward to that infusion of energy again from our fans. Even the 2,000, I'm sure they're going to be so excited to be in the building. The energy will be much more noticeable for sure.
"That's why we play the game. You get to this point in your career to not only play in the best league in the world but to play in front of a packed house every night. That's something you work and aspire to be a part of, to score goals in front of fans and to have your team winning in front of fans. That's something we're really excited about welcoming back, and I'm sure the 5th Line is pumped."
For head coach John Tortorella, it will be just as welcome of news. He's talked extensively this year about how the lack of energy in the buildings in which the Blue Jackets have played has impacted his team, with some players clearly struggling with what had become the new normal.
"I do," he said when asked if some players have felt the difference more than others. "I think some guys and I think some teams in an overall team are affected more by it. I felt that in my mind before the season started, I thought about that, as far as how it would affect people and clubs and I definitely have thoughts about that."
So far this year in Nationwide Arena, only player families were allowed in at the start of the year, with team employees welcomed later, but that still only amounted to small smattering of spectators -- a total in the hundreds -- at club level for each game.
The Blue Jackets are yet to play a game in front of a true audience this year, though that will become more common as the season goes on. Fellow Central Division foes Florida and Dallas have had fans in the building this season, with the Blue Jackets still to play four times apiece in each of those venues.
Meanwhile, Central Division foe Tampa Bay hopes to have close to 4,000 fans in attendance by the time the Blue Jackets visit for their four games in April. Nashville also has been approved to host up to 15 percent of capacity and slowly has been opening up in recent weeks.
The support from fans across the league has been strong through these unique times, with television ratings up, including in Columbus. But on game day, it's still been an interesting feeling in empty buildings, one that is different even from last year's time in the playoff bubbles, where the lack of people in the building didn't seem as stark because the Stanley Cup was on the line and the requisite intensity was still there.
In other words, the players are ready to see some actual faces in the crowd.
"Obviously we know that they are watching from home, but it is something different when you have people in the stands and people are physically cheering you on," Columbus native Jack Roslovic said. "It's something that will bring energy and bring something good to life. Even if it's our fans rooting for us or fans rooting against us in different rinks, it's always nice to have those people around."
If all goes according to plan from here, the Blue Jackets will be able to play their last 16 home games of the season in front of the fans in Nationwide Arena. March 2 will be almost exactly one year since the last game in the downtown arena with fans, a 5-3 come-from-behind win March 1 of last year vs. Vancouver, the kind of energizing victory that is made even better by celebrating it with the 5th Line.
"Everybody wants (fans back)," Tortorella said. "I know ownership wants it, I know management wants it. More importantly, the players want it. It's certainly a whole different dynamic on what is going on right now. I never realized how important it was to energy until I've gone through it this year. … I think it will be good for everybody."