It all seems so quaint and innocent now, in retrospect. This was a big game Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, Flyers-Bruins, and it felt like a big game, despite the obvious and concerning circumstances. If there were no coronavirus outbreak occupying so many minds around the country, if the Flyers’ 2-0 loss were just what, on paper, it was supposed to be — a matchup between contenders in the NHL’s Eastern Conference — seeing the Wells Fargo Center jam-packed would have been expected, a formality.
But in the context of the warnings and the public-health worries and the cancellations of other sports events around the country — the Ivy League’s men’s and women’s basketball championships among them — seeing a large, lively, and fully engaged crowd felt like something different.
The official attendance Tuesday night was 19,689, 1,300 more than the average crowd the Flyers have drawn at their home games this season, 148 more than the Center’s official sellout capacity. And for the game’s first 40 minutes, until a slap shot by Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk slipped through Carter Hart with less than two minutes left in the second period, the building was as loud as it has been in a long time. The scene, the noise, the whole night felt like an act of defiance from several thousand people who wanted to watch their favorite team in a game that meant something and who didn’t want to be told what to do. Who didn’t want to be told to stay home.
“It’s Philly, bro,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said.
He said it with a snicker because he knew it was the truth, for the fans and for the players themselves. “I don’t think we really care about coronavirus the way other people do,” Hart said. “The fans have been great lately. We’ve had a couple of sellouts the last couple of weeks. Can’t really thank them enough for their support. It’s always nice when you have a packed house.”
For a while Tuesday, it was fair to wonder whether that house would be empty. In retrospect, it’s remarkable it wasn’t. Colleges and universities canceled on-campus classes. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference canceled the state boys’ basketball championship tournament. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association rescheduled games. Three schools in PIAA District 1 declined to host state-playoff basketball games. Philadelphia canceled Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The postponements and cancellations and chaos continued into Wednesday. The NCAA announced that it would bar fans from the Division I men’s and women’s basketball championships. The NBA suspended its season Wednesday night. Yet the Flyers and Bruins went about the business of their day, and everyone else just waited.
“The health and safety of Wells Fargo Center attendees is our top priority,” a Flyers spokesman said in a statement released 20 minutes before game time. “We’ve strengthened our already very rigorous sanitation processes and procedures throughout the arena before, during, and after each event. If you are a ticket holder [who] is feeling ill, or has underlying health conditions, you should consider not attending. If you have any questions, please contact the Wells Fargo Center and Flyers Ticket Department."
Were the Flyers wrong to hold the game? Were those who went wrong to go? Did they put themselves and others at risk? Maybe they did. In that moment, I couldn’t pretend to know. I’m a sportswriter, not an expert in infectious diseases, and though I feel comfortable lecturing people about, say, the importance of Hart to the Flyers, I don’t feel the same measure of confidence when it comes to lecturing people on the proper reaction to this outbreak. This story, this situation, is evolving and changing by the minute, as is the public reaction to it, and what someone says right now about it could appear foolish or rash in a matter of seconds, with the next piece of news, the next confirmed case.
But here’s what happened Tuesday: Representatives from the city’s health department recommended that people avoid public gatherings of 5,000 people or more. It was not an order or a mandate. It was a recommendation, a warning, an open door that a person could choose to enter. Try to eliminate all the risk in all the world, anticipate the worst outcome at all times, and you can drive yourself crazy. But maybe our times require us to be that crazy. Everyone who was inside the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night chose to walk through that door and accept that risk. Maybe everyone recognized that the game might be the last opportunity to feel normal for a while, and everyone took it.
Of course, with that acceptance of risk comes the attendant responsibility. Of course it does. The Flyers, by all appearances, followed through on their promised precautions. They closed the locker room and sent coach Alain Vigneault and his players to a lectern to speak to the media, presumably at a safe distance, after the team’s morning skate, then again after the game. Me, I was at the Wells Fargo Center all day, from 10:30 a.m. until after 11 p.m., and if I washed my hands once, I washed them two dozen times. I washed them before I entered the media dining room, handed over some cash to pay for dinner, then left the room to wash them again, just to be sure.
I hope everyone else scrubbed until he or she couldn’t scrub anymore, too, and if there were people who didn’t want to take any chances, who couldn’t post TWO SEATS FOR FLYERS-BRUINS AVAILABLE on StubHub fast enough Tuesday afternoon, I understand why they would and did. I might not have gone to the game as a fan or spectator, even if I couldn’t refund my ticket.