Eight months ago, as the Blue Jackets were getting ready to go to the Toronto bubble, the Snyder family tripped from Newark to Columbus to stand outside the OhioHealth Ice Haus to watch practice.
So it seems only fitting that Rick and Josie Snyder and their two daughters Joslyn and Jacey were in a much more familiar spot Tuesday night -- joining the just under 2,000 people who welcomed back to Nationwide Arena as part of the first CBJ game to have paid public attendance this year.
"I'm so excited to see the players play again, it's been too long and I've missed my hockey friends," Jacey said.
"I'm really excited to be back," Joslyn added. "I missed watching the Blue Jackets so much that I learned to play hockey while I waited and now I'm going to be in the NWHL!"
Time will tell on that last one -- good luck, Joslyn, and don't take too many skating lessons from your dad -- but it's fair to say that enthusiasm was shared by just about everyone who walked through the gates of Nationwide Arena last night as the team welcomed fans for the first time in 366 days. The result was what was desired as well, as Columbus pulled away to a 4-1 victory over Detroit.
"This has been the longest I've gone in between home games (I was at the last one last year) since we became season ticket holders in the lockout season, so it's been a long time coming," said Dan Steck, a Columbus resident who sat in section 118 near the Zamboni tunnel. "Finally getting back gives a sense of hope that we're almost through. It's almost surreal seeing in person NHL hockey again."
While the fans were excited, you could make the argument the players were doubly so. They're performers, after all, so playing the first 20-plus games of the season in empty buildings was a buzzkill, one felt in moments big and small despite pumped in crowd noise and familiar cannon blasts.
So when Cam Atkinson found a long rebound, skated the length of the ice and ripped a slap shot past Detroit goalie Jonathan Bernier in the first period to give Columbus a 1-0 lead, it was no surprise that Atkinson turned toward the crowd and gave it a salute before celebrating his goal with teammates.
Video: DET@CBJ: Atkinson wires home SHG to open the scoring
"That was spontaneous," said Atkinson, who also thanked the fans during his postgame interview on the bench with Jody Shelley before pumping up the crowd as he went down the tunnel. "Even getting interviewed after by Jody, there's so much emotion because it's been such a crazy year for everyone, starting in playoffs and the start of this year as well. Obviously the NHL and the (Players Association) and health care workers, first responders, they've done such a huge job in allowing us to be able to play this year and obviously doing a great job with allowing fans in the building.
"I think not only have we been anxiously waiting for them to come in, but they have just as much, the fans. It's great to see them cheering us on. It gives us so much energy and gives us a huge boost."
The Blue Jackets showed their appreciation postgame when, instead of skating down the tunnel after the postgame handshake line, the team went to center ice for a stick salute for the fans in attendance. Afterward, captain Nick Foligno gave a quick thank you to all those who were in the building.
"We know this has been a crazy year for everyone," Foligno said. "First of all, it's just great to see everyone healthy in this arena, and it's great to see everybody in this arena. We missed you guys. Thank you for the support. Let's have a lot of fun from here on out. Thanks so much, 5th Line."
Zach Werenski added that the almost 2,000 fans sounded like a lot, even saying he and David Savard discussed on the bench during the second period how excited they were to have the spectators back in the arena. For head coach John Tortorella, the moment he noticed a difference was the moment between the national anthem -- which featured a hearty LEO! -- and the start of the game.
That moment is usually filled with an anticipatory buzz, one that the head coach noticed had been missing in recent weeks and was happy to have back.
"I'm happy for them," Tortorella said of the fans. "With all the crap going on and people kind of locked out and stuck, it's nice. I'm happy for them that they get to come out and see it, and I'm glad we won a hockey game."
Sports is about making memories and celebrating moments as a community. For the Blue Jackets and their fans, Tuesday night was about getting back to some sort of normalcy in that regard.
"I missed it so much, it's hard to put in words how much I missed being here," said fan Andrew Landers of Hilliard, who was watched from section 225 of Nationwide Arena for the game. "After being here for many incredible moments, I missed the amazing atmosphere most of all. Ever since they announced fans were returning, I couldn't wait for the moment to be back cheering on this team."