Hockey fans in Florida, Arizona and Texas are among those who will be able to watch their teams live when the delayed 2020-21 NHL season gets under way in January.
Tampa Bay Lightning, Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars have already said that a limited number of spectators can attend matches when fixtures begin from January 13.
Plans for the 56-game regular season were published over the weekend, with officials suggesting most initial matches would be behind closed doors.
However, teams in states where mass gatherings are allowed have already started to make plans to welcome back fans for the first time since March 2020.
Dallas Stars has outlined proposals for around 5,000 fans to attend games at the 18,500-capacity American Airlines Center. While Texas currently allows professional sports teams to have 50-per-cent capacity at indoor events, spacing out seats for social distancing drops the figure lower.
Arizona Coyotes president and chief executive Xavier Gutierrez said the team plans to have a limited capacity of fans at Gila River Arena from the beginning of the new season. Gutierrez’s announcement came after the NBA’s Phoenix Suns said they would start the basketball season without fans due to the increased transmission of COVID-19 in Arizona, while the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals will play their final games of the season behind closed doors after welcoming more than 4,000 for games in November.
Gutierrez said fan well-being is the team’s “No.1 priority”, adding that they hope to announce some innovative and tech-enabled tools they will use to keep spectators safe.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay Lightning have told fans they will be allowed to attend games at Amalie Arena, although the number of fans that will be permitted is unclear.
The NBA’s Toronto Raptors, who are calling Amalie Arena home through at least the first half of the NBA season, played in front of 2,300 socially distanced fans sitting in pods of two and four for last week’s preseason game and will welcome 3,800 spectators for today’s regular-season opener against New Orleans Pelicans.
20,000-capacity Amalie Arena recently became one of the first professional sports venues to earn dual certification from both the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) for excellence in COVID-19 safety preparedness and protocols.
In announcing the schedule for 2020-21, the NHL said the current plan is to play games in teams’ home arenas with the understanding that fans will not be permitted to attend in most, at least in the initial part of the season.
“The NHL looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
“While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritise the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play.”