COLUMN: Penguins hockey truly returned Friday, so let's keep it that way

Tyler Piccotti, The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
·4 min read

Mar. 20—It was only a matter of time.

Sure enough, with the Penguins cycling the puck on a first period power play Friday, one of the 1,245 fans officially in attendance shouted an instruction to the well-trained professional athletes playing in front of him.

"Shoot!" he yelled, as if it would lead the Penguins to a sudden epiphany of how ice hockey works.

In the past, I would have muttered some kind of sarcastic comment under my breath. This time, though, I just smiled. For better or worse, the sights and sounds of a game at Mohegan Sun Arena were back.

And it felt great.

It wasn't a typical Friday night game in March, which is usually raucous with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton chasing down a playoff spot. Maybe the promotional team would have had a theme night or special jersey lined up, as well.

But given the past year-plus amid the coronavirus pandemic, any semblance of "typical" is a welcome sight. And for that reason, Friday's 5-2 loss for the Penguins marked a significant step forward for area sports fans and, frankly, Northeast Pennsylvania in general.

"We really appreciate that support, especially after being away for so long," Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest said after the game. "It shows the type of community we have around this hockey team. You go from nothing to having fans, and it does make a difference."

That goes for playing and watching.

Don't get me wrong — we should be thankful we have hockey of any kind this season. The Penguins and other 27 teams playing this spring are sacrificing a lot of time, money and brainpower to make this work as best they can and deserve credit.

But, without fans, the experience was definitely lacking character. Sort of like riding Disney's Space Mountain roller coaster with all the lights on.

Sure, it's still fun taking all the drops and hairpin turns, but that feeling of wonder and exploration is gone. You can't help noticing you're simply on a track inside a giant box.

That's why all the little things stood out on Friday. A player tossing a puck to a kid during warmups. The boos for the officials before the game even started. Tux banging his drum and riding around on the "Fanboni." And, of course, the inevitable cheer when the out of town scoreboard showed the Hershey Bears trailing.

It all felt real again.

"I think not just for us, but for every team in the league, with a little bit of fans there's going to be more adrenaline, it's going to make you want to get up a little bit more for the games," Penguins forward Josh Currie said earlier in the week. "It's going to be great just to get a sense of more normalcy."

With crowd restrictions set to be reduced even further in a couple weeks, Friday could indeed be a turning point. One of the first large-scale indoor events held in the area in over 12 months, and a sign that we could call cooperate with one another long enough to stay safe and enjoy the activities we've missed.

But, we all need to do our part to make sure that's the case. To use a hockey cliche, it's only the second period and we still need to play a full 60 minutes to get out of this pandemic and have the arena buzzing again.

So, give one another some space and wear your mask. You don't want to be caught on the Dance Cam without it. Plus, they probably have some cool ones for sale at the team store.

If you are eligible for a vaccine and it becomes more widely available, make plans to get one.

And be sure to check in on your friends that still feel more comfortable watching the game from home. It's just the nice thing to do, and it will make their eventual return all the more special.

That will all accomplish a lot more than yelling at the power play.

TYLER PICCOTTI covers the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton penguins for The Citizens' Voice. Contact him at 570-821-2089 and follow him @CVPiccotti on Twitter.