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Home ice won’t be as much of an advantage as it usually is for the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs.
Yes, the Hurricanes get to host a potential Game 7 against the Nashville Predators, but they’ll be limited to around 6,000 fans in PNC Arena when the series begins Sunday or Monday, while the Predators will be allowed as many as 14,000 at their home games.
North Carolina’s COVID capacity restrictions are likely to be loosened June 1, Gov. Roy Cooper has said, but the state has rejected the Hurricanes’ request to allow more fans in the arena in the two weeks of playoff hockey before then.
“We’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time making sure we did it right,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said. “We think we can do it right if we increase attendance. From our customers, the only complaints we’ve gotten is when someone doesn’t have their mask on all the time and that’s just going to be an ongoing thing anyway.
“We’ve sent out surveys asking if people feel safe in the building. We’ve got the cleaning crews going up and down cleaning the handrails. The restrooms are manned. We’re doing everything we can to prove not only to the state but to our customers we have the best environment we can.”
The current state restriction limits indoor arenas to 50 percent of capacity, which for PNC would be more than 9,000, but state social-distancing requirements have limited the Hurricanes to 4,987 since the latest loosening of restrictions in late March. That’s up from a few hundred to start the season, and 2,924 starting at the end of February.
By utilizing more suites and creating bigger pods of fans within the stands, the Hurricanes will be able to bump that to about 6,000 when the first-round series starts Sunday or Monday, Waddell said.
The team also looked into creating a vaccinated section, Waddell said, but it would have unlocked only 120 or so seats while requiring considerable staffing and effort.
The need for capacity restrictions is obvious, even as we continue to emerge from the depths of the pandemic, but with the end in sight — and for arena attendance caps, perhaps only a few weeks away -- it does seem like there’s room for rational relaxation under the circumstances, at least to the 50 percent mark which was the intent (if not the letter) of the guidelines.
So it wouldn’t be playing favorites if the Hurricanes-uber-fan-governor found a way to get a few more of his compatriots in the building, especially this close to June 1.
Cooper’s office did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
Is it actually a competitive disadvantage for the Hurricanes? Maybe not. But it certainly can’t help.
After a season spent playing in front of anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand fans both at home and on the road, the crowd in Nashville is going to sound like a few million. And while Hurricanes fans are famous for being loud during the postseason, there’s only so much 6,000 fans can do in a building built for three times that many.
Unsurprisingly, the demand is there. The Hurricanes offered tickets to their core COVID group of 2,400 season-ticket holders last week, then put the rest on sale to other season-ticket holders with money on deposit with the team on Monday. They sold out Monday night, Waddell said. A few hundred tickets blocked by the NHL could also become available the day before Game 1.
PNC Arena has the ventilation capacity to host as many as 12,000 fans and still meet NHL standards without bringing in extra ventilation as Nashville and Florida both have. If the Hurricanes are able to get past the Predators, they might be able to bring that many in for the second round.
“They keep shooting for June 1,” Waddell said. “If everything goes well the rest of this month, that will open it up some more.”