It’s back — after a 19-month absence.
The Zamboni … power plays … “He shoots, he scores!” After 589 days, hockey returns to Charlotte on Friday night.
The Charlotte Checkers, sidelined by COVID-19 since March 2020, resumed American Hockey League play last weekend by splitting two games in Pennsylvania.
But the Checkers — who, by technicality, are the defending AHL playoff champions — are back at Bojangles Coliseum for a 7 p.m. faceoff Friday night. They’ll face the Hershey Bears, and the same teams will play again at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“These were the 19 most difficult months of my business career,” says Tera Black, chief operating officer of the Checkers. “But we got through it, and we’re ready to do it again.”
The Checkers and the rest of the AHL were shut down in mid-March 2020 by COVID, and although most of the league’s franchises played a shortened season last winter, Charlotte and a few other organizations sat it out.
The COVID shutdown was especially painful for Black.
“We were having our best financial year ever,” she said.
Black said the new BOPlex connector, an area of offices, party rooms and a full kitchen that connects Bojangles Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium, was nearly ready to open in March 2020.
“It was to be opened March 22, and it would expand our hospitality opportunities,” Black says. “Suddenly, it was a COVID testing site.”
With all that in the rear-view mirror, there is some of the familiar — but also some big changes — in store for hockey fans this season.
A new parent club
When play ended with Charlotte’s 3-2 overtime victory over Cleveland on March 11, 2020, the Checkers were the top farm team of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.
But in May 2020, the Hurricanes moved their AHL affiliation to the Chicago Wolves. That set off a sort of musical chairs in hockey, with several franchises switching AHL cities.
Charlotte became a farm team of the Florida Panthers, based in the Miami area.
Losing the Hurricanes as a parent club worried some Checkers’ fans, but Charlotte appears to have come out OK. The Panthers have a strong farm system and currently sit first in the NHL’s Atlantic Division.
“Florida is a strong organization, dedicated to winning,” says new Checkers’ head coach Geordie Kinnear. “Players learn faster and get to the NHL quicker when they’re playing in a winning environment. We want that in Charlotte.”
Wait … a ‘new’ head coach?
If you think the name Geordie Kinnear sounds familiar, you’re right. He was assistant coach of the Checkers when they started in the AHL in 2010 and stayed until 2016. He then moved to the Florida organization and coached the Panthers’ AHL team in Syracuse through last season.
“I was here when the Checkers started to build toward success,” Kinnear says. “I think we can do that again.”
The Checkers won the AHL’s Calder Cup in 2019. The league did not hold playoffs in 2020 or last spring. So that makes Charlotte the defending playoff champion.
The Checkers actually are an affiliate of two teams this season. The NHL’s newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, are assigning players in Charlotte this season until the Kraken (which, by the way, is a mythical sea monster that resembles an octopus) set up their own AHL affiliate.
The Kraken’s general manager, Ron Francis, is a former Hurricanes executive and is familiar with the Charlotte operation.
“I’ve worked with Ronnie before,” Kinnear said. “He and the other Seattle folks are good people.”
Park for free?
A decades-old staple of attending a Checkers game — paying for parking at Bojangles Coliseum — is a thing of the past. Fans arriving for games will not pay to park any more. The parking fee has been incorporated into the ticket price (factoring in that more than one person is typically in each vehicle).
Mecklenburg County requires that fans wear masks into Bojangles Coliseum and keep them on during games, except when they are eating or drinking.
Another impact that fans will see is the lack of interaction with players. Gone, at least for now, are the postgame social gatherings between fans and players that existed in the past.
And media members must be fully vaccinated in order to cover the team.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle