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NHL exhibition games begin with new look as test run for Cup Qualifiers

More visual elements to be added with screens, lighting, no fans in arena

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- It was only an exhibition. But it was the first NHL game since March 11, the day before the season was paused due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, and unlike any NHL game ever played before.

The Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime before zero fans at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday in a preview of what the NHL's return will look and sound like when the Stanley Cup Qualifiers start Saturday.

"I think everyone's just eager to show off," said Renee Riva, NHL director of game presentation, as she sat at her laptop in a repurposed suite at center ice. "We're proud. We've been working around the clock for the past couple weeks developing this, and seeing it come to fruition is pretty impressive. Hopefully everyone else feels the same."

It feels empty with no fans in the stands, literally and figuratively. Nothing can replace the energy the fans bring.

But the NHL is bringing the game to them at home amid the pandemic by putting 24 teams in two hub cities -- 12 Eastern Conference teams in Toronto, 12 Western Conference teams in Edmonton -- for an unprecedented, made-for-TV tournament.

The first thing you notice is the look. The seats at the bottom of the lower bowl are covered, and the area behind the benches has been transformed with elaborate lighting and giant video screens.

The lighting was subdued, and the screens showed only the NHL, Flyers and Penguins logos Tuesday. But lighting will be spectacular, and the screens will be tied into the TV broadcasts with different types of content when the Qualifiers start.

"We'll play around with broadcasts, because these screens are really here for broadcasts," Riva said. "We're really catering to what our broadcast needs are and working with our partners to see what works and what doesn't work."

Once the puck drops and your eyes focus on the ice, the next thing you notice is the sound. In the building, it is silent during play, so you can hear pucks hitting sticks, skates scraping ice and players yelling. Let's just say there is a reason there is a five-second delay for TV.

"It's definitely a different vibe," Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. "I don't know how it's going to be when you're playing real games, if it will be more fired up. You obviously miss the fans."

That's why there is virtual crowd noise on TV broadcasts, and that's why the NHL is using goal horns and music from each team's home arena in the building.

The Flyers were the home team Tuesday, so the NHL used their playlist before each period. But it used goal horns, goal songs and power-play prompts for each team, and that is the plan once the Qualifiers start.

"We're still trying to keep the energy going, even though there's no fans," Riva said. "We want the players to be motivated too."

Another thing you notice: the temperature. It was July 28, usually the middle of the offseason, and 82 degrees Fahrenheit in Toronto on Tuesday. But at ice level inside the arena it was a chilly 56 degrees with 52 percent humidity.

Video: PIT@PHI: Laughton roofs OT winner

The NHL built a new ice sheet at Scotiabank Arena. Other than one skate by officials, this exhibition was first test of the surface. The next test came a couple hours later when the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs played in the second game of a doubleheader.

"We have a few issues to figure out with the loading dock and keeping doors closed, but we're not loading the building with 18,000 people," said Derek King, NHL senior manager of facilities operations, who oversees the ice crew. "The engineering crew has it dialed in."

Last but not least, you notice the strict medical protocol.

The players arrived at the rink wearing masks. During TV timeouts, the ice crew wore gloves and masks. Between periods, a cleaning crew sterilized the bench areas wearing masks, gloves and medical gowns. Between games, it sterilized everything again -- benches, penalty boxes, locker rooms. Not only did it replace the water bottles, it replaced the water bottle holders.

This continues to be a work in progress, with nothing left to chance. Take the ice crew. The members found their regular shoveling pattern didn't work for social distancing, so after talking to the on-ice officials, they were going to try a new pattern for the second game to stay farther from the players.

"We want to make sure we're doing that right," King said.

Finally, after 138 days without it, we have NHL hockey. It might look different. It might sound different. It might be socially distanced. But it's back.

And soon the Stanley Cup will be at stake.

"It's exciting to develop and kind of test it out during the exhibition games," Riva said, "and then we're pedal to the metal come Saturday."

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