Tanner Pearson had a theory.
He watched the St. Louis Blues tie a crucial game in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs against his Vancouver Canucks with six seconds remaining in regulation. Under normal circumstances, this would have been emotionally crushing for a young road team, as the Blues would have ridden an emotional wave from their home fans into overtime. But these were not normal circumstances: The stands were empty, as COVID-19 forced the NHL to restart its season without fans in the stands. In the Edmonton, Alberta, bubble, the only cheers were from players on the St. Louis bench and those artificially pumped through the rink’s speakers.
Vancouver skated out confidently into overtime and Bo Horvat ended it before it was six minutes old, leading to Pearson’s theory: Playing without a crowd played right into the road team’s hands.
“Some people could say that it helped there were no fans in the stands for that. If you’re a home team and you score a late goal, that building erupts. Especially now. It could have taken the wind out of us,” he said.
Canucks coach Travis Green offered peer review on Pearson’s theory. “I think there’s validation on that,” he said. “Being on the road, being at home, probably isn’t quite the factor here that it is in regular playoffs, for sure. It’s really now gotta come internally. Your emotions, your desire to win, your desire to compete, your desire to make sacrifices, it really has to come from within. You want players that are self-motivated that way, and don’t necessarily need the crowd to do the things you need to do to win.”
The NHL’s restarted season has been like a series of daily psychological tests for its teams. How they handle isolation in their hotel rooms during a playoff season without any travel. How the restrictions brought on by COVID-19 — from daily testing to social distancing — weigh on them. But from a hockey perspective, the most interesting case study is how athletes so familiar with riding waves of emotion from fans in the playoffs — and in many cases, playing to that crowd with their actions — can self-motivate inside a vacuum.
What is home-ice advantage without anyone at home?
“It’s like the perfect experiment,” said Dr. Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist specializing in the psychology of sports and currently president of Barnard College in New York.
“For me, it’s less about fans not being there and more about what players are used to. What a lot of research shows is that practicing under the conditions you play in is really important, and this was certainly a change in conditioning for players that have played with fans for a long time. It’s about adapting. Realizing that it’s not just about your skill and what happens on the rink, but that the outside matters, too. So how are they generating their own momentum, if they don’t have it from the crowd?”
The empty environment for these postseason games became a major point of discussion recently, thanks to Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who expressed frustration that it “didn’t feel like playoff hockey out there” during games in the Toronto bubble.
“When you play at your home rink, you play at an away rink, and there’s fans cheering for you or against you … that creates another buzz around the series. There’s none of that, so it just feels dull at times. There might be five minutes and it’s just coast-to-coast hockey and there’s no atmosphere. It just feels like an exhibition game,” he said.
It turned out that Rask’s heart wasn’t into the restart, as he left the Bruins and the bubble Sunday to be with his family. But he was the first player to speak candidly about how the aesthetics of these playoff games fell short of playoff intensity. It’s been noteworthy that so few others have joined his chorus.
“Honest to God, at ice level once the puck drops, it feels like any other game. It’s a playoff game. Playoff intensity,” said Vegas coach Peter DeBoer, when asked about Rask’s comments. “I think typically when you hear comments like that, the team has usually lost. That would be my only opinion on that.”
“To be honest, I didn’t think about it once. I didn’t really think about it all series,” he said. “Obviously we miss the fans and want the fans in the building, but the NHL did a good job of making it feel like there’s a good atmosphere.”
Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer and senior executive VP of events and entertainment, called that atmosphere “a made-for-television event, because all of our fans are going to be watching at home.”
The NHL tarped off the lower bowls in its “hub” arenas in Toronto and Edmonton. The speakers pump in loud music during stoppages, synthetic crowd noise during action, and goal celebration cacophonies when either the home or road teams score. The only time you hear or see fans is on the large video screens placed above the corners of the rink, where prerecorded videos of cheers and chants are displayed during key moments of the game.
It may not perfectly replicate the playoff atmosphere, but for some players, it’s been close enough.
“They’ve been making an effort of pumping in crowd noise, when there’s a big save or a big hit or a chance or anything like that. But to be honest, the emotion of the game and players going at each other doesn’t feel any different than any other playoffs that I’ve been a part of. It’s been entertaining, and what playoff hockey is all about,” said Milan Lucic of the Calgary Flames. “Obviously, we do miss the fans. They add a little bit to it. But from an on-ice standpoint, it feels the same to what I have experienced in the past.”
Vancouver’s Horvat hadn’t participated in the playoffs since 2015, but said, “everything’s pretty much as I remembered it” when asked about the atmosphere. “I think having no fans in the building hasn’t affected how the game’s been played. Emotions are high. I don’t think guys are taking it any lighter without fans in the crowd. It’s been intense and hard-hitting. Playoff hockey. You wouldn’t expect anything less from NHL players.”
Beilock said players had to figure out how to stay inspired without the fans in the building. “If a player needs the crowd to be amped up for them to get amped up, that can be a problem. So how do you create the carrot in your mind? We’re good at creating scenarios in our head. There’s no reason they can’t do that,” she said.
In her research, Beilock has found that short-range vs. long-range focus can help. “Focus on what’s right in front of you,” she said. “What’s the next five minutes like? That’s how you can stay amped up in the short term. Some people are always looking at long-range plans. That’s why diets don’t work. You don’t have that instant gratification. So what are you going to do to get that instant gratification? Can the coach do something? Can the teammates do something?”
In the bubble, teammates have replaced the fans as emotional catalysts during games. “I think as a group we’ve done a good job creating our own emotion. When someone scores, the bench erupts,” said Pearson.
An unexpected byproduct of the “players bench as cheering section” phenomenon? Players who are typically more reserved coming out of their shells.
“We’re kind of a quiet team as it is. We have a couple of guys that are louder, but we’re kind of a quiet team,” said Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet. “I saw another element from them in the play-in [round] as a team. I saw guys that are usually quiet step outside their comfort zone. The chirping. The acknowledgement of good play.”
The coach also felt the need to amplify himself in the vacuum. “I try not to bark that much. But I just think it’s the environment. I think you just need to add juice because it’s quiet in there,” said Tocchet.
Where the juice has been drained the most is from home teams. There’s still that designation each game, as it affects what jerseys teams wear, which benches the teams populate, who gets the last change and, above all else, who has the larger locker room. But as the Blues discovered with that last-second goal against the Canucks, there’s not that sustained emotional lift after a pivotal play.
“There are still emotions in the game. It’s still intense,” said Brock Nelson of the New York Islanders. “Everybody’s out there competing hard and wanting to win. So that aspect hasn’t changed. The adrenaline, maybe, from the crowd and the momentum swings from a big hit, might not happen as often.”
Nick Cousins, a forward for the Vegas Golden Knights, said that has made being the “road team” easier. “The biggest advantage is not going into another team’s building and having their fans create the energy for them and create a hostile environment for us as being the away team. That’s the biggest thing for me,” he said.
Cousins noted how a stellar performance from Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford would have sparked the crowd in Chicago in a typical playoff environment. Not so much in the bubble. “Their goalie was playing well. They didn’t really have that much energy to feed off of, other than him making some real big saves for them,” he said.
There’s another aspect of being the home team that’s not present in bubble hockey, and it’s the negative side of it: that tense energy transferred from a crowd down to its players during critical games. Anyone who has watched a home team lose in a Game 7 has experienced this.
“There’s no question that having people watch you, and knowing they have high expectations, can cause you to choke. There’s some research suggesting that a supportive audience can be really dangerous in that situation. It’s a really interesting theory,” said Beilock, who authored a book called “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.”
But mostly, it’s the positive influence of home fans that teams are missing. “When you get momentum swings and you’ve got your fans behind you, they can drive it a little further and a little longer,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “Right now you have to drive it internally a little bit more.”
The Islanders were a team that lost a significant home-ice advantage to the restart format, as they would have played their home playoff games inside the raucous confines of Nassau Coliseum. The bubble may have separated the Islanders from their fans, but not from fan support, according to Trotz.
“I know our fans on Long Island have been fantastic, sending a lot of social media stuff,” he said.
Islanders fan Matthew Kammerer wanted to send something more tangible to support his team in the bubble.
Kammerer works in construction, but also works as an usher at Nassau Coliseum. He’s a die-hard Islanders fan, watching from afar as they eliminated the Florida Panthers and jumped out to a 3-1 lead in their first-round series against the Washington Capitals.
“As fans, we just couldn’t be prouder,” he said. “So I just started thinking if there was a physical way [to support them]. The borders are closed. We can’t storm the hub. The only thing you can do is something virtually, through technology. And sometimes you feel like you’re yelling into the wind with stuff like that.”
So he thought about ways to physically manifest fan support for the Islanders. As anyone who has been to the beach on the East Coast knows, there’s one time-tested way to get your message across: Flying a banner behind an airplane.
That became his vision: a banner that would read, “Let’s Go Islanders!!!!” The four exclamation points are intentional, representing the franchise’s four Stanley Cups.
As he began researching Canadian air-tow companies that could fly such a banner, he was shocked by the cost estimates and started reconsidering the plan. Then a friend pointed out the prices were in Canadian dollars. “That made it a little more reasonable,” he said.
Kammerer eventually found a company that offered flexibility on scheduling the flight, not only out of consideration for weather but also around the Islanders’ games should they advance to the conference semifinals. He has reached out to the Islanders about trying to coordinate the moment with their social media team.
“The idea originated, believe it or not, when Tuukka Rask opted out,” he said. “You’re being entertained by these guys, and there’s always a tendency to forget that these are real people with real issues. With lives and families, who can get homesick just like anybody else.”
The estimate in hand, Kammerer started a Go Fund Me for the stunt. He was concerned about there being a finite number of Islanders fans who would contribute to something like this, given the economic impact of the pandemic. But the fundraiser had eclipsed its initial goal within 24 hours, and had amassed $4,562 by the time he turned the pledges off.
Most comments attached to donations were made in support of the Islanders, but more than a few noted that the plane would be flying over Toronto. That’s home to John Tavares, the former Islanders captain who angered the Long Island faithful when he fled to the Maple Leafs as a free agent in 2018.
“There have been some funny comments attached to some of the donations. You know, ‘I’ll pay extra if you can circle over John Tavares’ pool.’ Stuff like that,” Kammerer said.
He said the banner isn’t meant to troll the Maple Leafs. At least primarily.
“Listen, if that’s a happy side effect, it’s just sports. That could be kind of funny,” he said. “But I just wanted this to be a positive thing. The players, instead of looking down at their phones coming out of the morning skate, look up in the sky and get a little pumped up. If I can get my favorite Islander to look up and smile for a few seconds, it’ll have been worth it.”
Like so many things during the pandemic, the bond between players and fans has been spaced out and socially distanced. But it hasn’t been broken.
“We miss it. We miss that buzz. The electricity of that big crowd,” said Kammerer. “Mostly this was about trying to recapture the togetherness of maybe believing we can drive the team a little bit, even if that’s true or not. We live in that world where, as fans, we want to believe we make a difference.”
Even if they can’t attend the games.