What was the 2020-21 season like?
To borrow a word from every television commercial in the calendar year 2020, it was unprecedented.
It was wildly successful for the Carolina Hurricanes, who finished with 36 wins and 80 points, second-most in the league, in 56 games and their first division title since 2005-06.
It was an unpredictable adventure, from the first drop of the puck in January to the final horn in June.
It was fun and challenging. It was a grind. It was lonely. It was trying. It was abnormal. It was memorable. It was unique.
It was many things, and I'll remember two diametrically opposed scenes from it: how it began and how it ended.
The season began, of course, against a backdrop of anxious anticipation and curious uncertainty. For the Canes, it paused again almost just as suddenly.
It was Friday, Jan. 15, the morning after the Canes had shut out the Detroit Red Wings in the long-awaited season opener. One win down, 55 to go, right? What could go wrong?
We woke up to a message on our phones. A positive COVID-19 test. No practice. Other than a team breakfast, we were to isolate in our hotel rooms.
Maybe it was a false positive, we hoped. After all, protocols were in place for a reason. We were still getting tested each and every morning. We should be fine. We should be.
By Tuesday morning, four more players had tested positive, and the good vibes from two wins in the first three games were quickly dashed by a sense of concern. How are we going to get through an entire season? What if more players or coaches or staff get sick? What if I get sick? What are we even doing here?
Additional positive test results were expected in the coming days, which gave way to a long, worrisome, stressful week. I went home to my pregnant wife. We both wore masks in the house. We ate and slept in separate rooms. We kept our distance.
The outbreak was thankfully contained before it spread too aggressively. Even still, an environment laden with personal protective equipment and daily testing was exposed to a highly contagious, potentially deadly virus. This wasn't a bubble. The threat was very real.
But the show had to go on, and after a necessary shutdown of team facilities, it was time to press play.
The season began again in Raleigh on Jan. 28. A home game. An actual, real-life hockey game inside PNC Arena, 11 long months after the last. There were no more than 50 human beings in the stands, a true friends-and-family affair, plus 1,000 cardboard cutouts of fans (and some pets). Their support from the Loudest Houses in the NHL was felt, but their in-arena energy was, well, stiff - a joke that's of course never been made before and is totally original.
It was, if nothing else, a step toward some semblance of normalcy that we once had grown so accustomed to, even in the midst of a situation that was decidedly not normal.
The season ended on June 8, as the clock ticked down to 0.0 in Game 5 of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In the 130 days in between, we rediscovered what normal really was. Vaccine rates increased, and COVID-19 numbers dipped. Protocols eventually loosened, and crowd size at PNC Arena swelled from virtually zero to practically a full barn.
Fans first returned on March 4, a 15%-of-capacity capacity crowd of 2,924 fans that, compared to what came before it, created what might as well have been a playoff atmosphere.
More and more fans returned in the last two months of the regular season. By Game 1 of the First Round, PNC Arena's lower bowl was packed, which made the then-capacity crowd of 12,000 look and feel even more substantial.
Attendance topped out at 16,299 for the Second Round. Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule captured a video of the raucous atmosphere inside PNC Arena during Game 5 and sent it to his son and a couple of his players, including future MVP running back Christian McCaffrey.
"I haven't seen a full crowd with this energy and electricity in such a long time," Rhule remarked. "It's a community event. It's always us vs. them. The crowd is doing an amazing job tonight. The atmosphere here is fantastic."
To imagine that sort of scene some 150 days prior would have been a dream sequence. At times, it still felt like that.
But it wasn't. It was very real. It was an immersive shared experience among a diverse, unified community - sports, as they're meant to be enjoyed.
As the Canes and Tampa Bay Lightning exchanged handshakes at center ice a week ago, a chant of "Let's go Canes!" rang out. There wasn't a Storm Surge, which made its first-ever appearance this postseason, but there was a final stick salute to the one through line that's connected us during all of this: you, the fans.
A lot changed in the five months that passed during the 2020-21 season. Even more has changed since the 2000-01 season. What hasn't changed in the last 20 years, though, is the unique connection this team shares with this fanbase.
Video: The Hurricanes thank their fans for another season.
The Canes, playing their second season in Raleigh, faced off with the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils in the 2001 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Canes became just the 10th team in NHL history to force a Game 6 after falling down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series. Though the Canes lost that series-deciding game, 5-1, the sellout crowd at what was then known as the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena showered the team with a roaring standing ovation in the final minutes of the game.
"If anybody now says there is no future for hockey here or that hockey doesn't belong here then they are wrong," goaltender Arturs Irbe told reporters afterward. "They opened their hearts to us, and we felt that way to them."
In 2001, the fans were just happy to see their Canes on hockey's ultimate stage, battling the reigning champions.
In 2021, Canes were supposed to be on that stage. Yes, the team fell short of its ultimate goal, especially after such a successful regular season, and that's a disappointment - and that just goes to show how much expectations have changed.
But don't mistake cheering after an elimination game for what it's not. There's still a sense of pride and unity amongst a fanbase that, when sitting courtside or at the 50-yard line, might otherwise have opposing rooting interests.
And, after living and ultimately persevering through one of the more wearying years we may ever face in our lifetimes, we all yearned to have something - anything - to cheer for.
The Carolina Hurricanes were that thing, no matter the outcome.
"Yeah, they're cheering for us, but they were just cheering that they got to go outside, root for a team and have a sense of, OK, this is kind of normal again," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said in the First Round. "Forget about all the crap that's gone on. It's just, hey, we're here to enjoy ourselves, and that's what life is about. We can do it in an environment with people you love and care about, and what the heck? Why wouldn't you? I think it just all came out."
I'll never forget how the 2020-21 season began for the Canes, and because of y'all, I'll never forget how it ended, either.