VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks have missed their fans.
It's been nearly 600 days since the club has played a regular-season game in front of a home crowd, a stretch that's set to end Tuesday when Vancouver hosts the Minnesota Wild.
Goalie Thatcher Demko remembers the last time he and his teammates heard the cheers of a packed Rogers Arena. It was back on March 10, 2020 when the Canucks snatched a 5-4 shootout win over New York Islanders in front of an 18,871-strong crowd.
“It’s crazy to think that we haven’t seen our fans in that long," Demko said Monday. "I know everyone’s excited about it, we’ve been talking about it. We were getting a little itchy on the road there, wanting to get home and play some home games here."
Much has changed over the past 19 months. Fans in attendance Tuesday will be required to wear masks and show vaccine passports, ideas that sounded more like science fiction than everyday reality back in March 2020.
For Demko, though, there's one thread running through both games.
"I was joking with my dad because he was at that (March 2020) game and he’s actually in town right now and I was like ‘Geeze, it’s been a long time. You were at the last game with friends and you’ll be at the one where we get them back, too.’ So that’s kind of cool," the goalie said.
While most NHL teams have already experienced the thrill of a home game this season, the Canucks (3-2-1) kicked off their campaign with a six-game road swing.
They capped the trip with a 4-2 win over the Seattle Kraken on Saturday.
“It’s not a lot of times that you start with a six-game trip and I like how we prevailed through it and got through it and played pretty well," said Canucks head coach Travis Green.
Saturday's victory marked the first-ever home game for the Kraken, the NHL's newest franchise. It was also the third home opener Vancouver has played this season.
Each was an exciting game in a hostile environment, Demko said.
“The fans are such a massive element to what we do on a nightly basis, whether we’re at home or on the road," he said.
It's an element some players missed last season, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Canucks — and many other NHL teams — to play in empty arenas against the same teams again and again.
Fans have a significant impact on games, said Vancouver centre Elias Pettersson.
“It’s like an extra player almost," he said. "Last year made me realize fans play a big part in just getting you going in a game. So the fans, they play a big part.”
Last week, the B.C. government announced it was lifting capacity limits on indoor sporting events, starting Monday as the province's new vaccine passport regulations came into effect.
The move means the Canucks can have 100 per cent capacity for Tuesday's home opener, though tickets were still available as of Monday afternoon.
Having a full building will be exciting for the whole team, said coach Green.
“Not only coming off a road trip, a long road trip here, you’re always excited to get home and play in front of fans," he said. "It’s been so long. It’s going to be a lot of energy in our building."
The Canucks and Wild haven't face one another since August 2020, when Vancouver beat Minnesota in a four-game series held in the NHL's post-season "bubble" in Edmonton.
The Wild (4-1-0) have looked strong early this season, winning four straight before dropping a 5-2 decision to the Nashville Predators on Sunday.
The visitors will be hungry for a win, Green said.
"(Tuesday's) game is going to be a tough game. Minnesota’s got a lot of depth, they've got a lot of sides and they can skate," he said.
“They’re playing with some confidence and some swagger which you would be when you have a start like that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press