SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The calendar flipped to September this week, which means spooky season and pumpkin spiced-everything season is officially upon us. It also means that hockey fans in Syracuse are beginning to gear up for something they haven’t had since February 2020: The chance to attend a live Crunch game inside the Onondaga County War Memorial.
The COVID-19 pandemic shorted the AHL’s 2019-20 season and left Crunch fans out in the cold in 2020-21, unable to attend live games in Syracuse. This past Tuesday, the Crunch released its anticipated policies for fan attendance inside the arena. As usual with the team, its front office, and its parent club, the organization is choosing a very clear “we’re in this together” approach.
Basically: If you are over the age of twelve and want to see or work a game, you better be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Like pretty much everywhere, Onondaga County is seeing high numbers of spread, although serious illness and hospitalizations are down within the area. According to a recent article on Syracuse.com:
Onondaga County added 118 new cases of Covid-19 to its count on Wednesday and one more person died from the virus, according to Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon.
Hospitalizations…have decreased. Nine people are in the ICU, two of whom were vaccinated, and 67 are in the hospital.
In recent weeks, the county has regularly been reporting more than new 100 cases of the virus everyday. Before this latest increase, the last time the county was reporting more than 100 cases a day was in April and early May.
As of writing this, Toronto is the only other team within the North Division that has released their own attendance policy for the upcoming season. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. announced in mid-August that fans attending games in their venues will require to show proof of vaccination or a negative test. Stockton over in the Pacific Division followed suit with identical guidelines. Abbotsford, the newest member of the league, is requiring full vaccination proof, just like Syracuse. It won’t be long before other teams release their own requirements as the league looks to host a full regular season and playoff slate without the interruptions they’ve seen because of COVID-19 over the past two seasons.
On their COVID-19 FAQ page, the Crunch clarifies any other questions fans might have about the new guidelines for attending games. Some highlights are:
- In accordance with current Onondaga County regulations, fans will have to wear a mask while inside the Upstate Medical University Arena.
- Those with medical conditions who are unable to get the COVID-19 vaccine must provide a doctor’s note and will be required to wear a mask while inside the Upstate Medical University Arena.
- If you purchased a ticket package for the 2021-22 season and do not want to get vaccinated and are therefore unable to attend, you are eligible for a full refund. Refunds must be requested by Oct. 22, 2021.
- Based on current conditions, we plan to play all 38 home games with full or near-full capacity.
Wednesday night, Crunch owner Howard Dolgon hosted the next in his series of Virtual Town Halls, where he interacts with fans through the team’s Facebook page and discusses any pertinent team and organizational news. Dolgon usually hosts these meetings live in the War Memorial throughout the season, but the pandemic has obviously changed the way things like this have to work. Dolgon did indicate that he’s hoping for a return to live Town Halls this upcoming season.
The timing of this particular Town Hall certainly wasn’t a mystery. At the start of the virtual event, Dolgon quipped, “We have a lot to talk about, probably more than we would have had two days ago.”
Unsurprisingly, Dolgon started out by addressing the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship this past summer. Many members of the Crunch’s front office were able to travel to Tampa and be there for the celebration. Dolgon recounted a particularly fun anecdote where former Crunch forward Ondrej Palat let out a joyful, “Syracuse!” upon the arrival of the Crunch staff to the dressing room post-game. Dolgon also addressed the free agency period Syracuse (with the help of Tampa) has had this past summer. He specifically discussed the signing of “heart and soul guy” Gabriel Dumont, along with “cream of the crop” forward Charles Hudon.
“Tampa is very confident that this may be the best team they’ve given since we got together,” Dolgon enthused. “We’re going in with a lot of optimism.”
Dolgon revealed that the Crunch will have a pre-season this fall, something he had expressed a desire for this past summer. Syracuse will play pre-season games against Rochester and Utica. They will play each team at home and away. The full schedule might be coming out as soon as Friday. Dolgon also dropped a hint that fans can expect the Stanley Cup to be in the building at some point this season. The team is still ironing out the details, but he’s hopeful those will be finalized soon. He said that what the team is wearing Opening Night will, “bring back a lot of memories for people. It’s going to be really special.”
After a good warm-up, Dolgon got down to business with a discussion about the team’s attendance policy, the topic that most of the 100 people who attended the event virtually were there to hear about. As usual, Dolgon did not pull any punches regarding their choice to require COVID vaccinations for those over twelve.
It was a decision not made very lightly. We discussed it with a number of our partners. Our partners in Tampa. Our partners in the County. Our partners at Upstate Med. In order to put our players, fans, and staff in the safest environment…we elected to go, for now, with mandatory vaccinations in order to watch a game in our building.
Now, the County has a current mandate on masks being worn indoors at facilities like ours, so obviously we have to follow that mandate as well. Once that mandate is pulled by the County, we will eliminate that as well.
Will there be fans that elect not to come, not to get vaccinated? Absolutely, and that’s their right…We wanted to get our information from the right source, from the hospitals, the doctors, the infectious disease specialists. Yes, you can get vaccinated and get COVID. If you’re vaccinated, you’re very unlikely to be on a ventilator or die. That’s the reality…We know whatever decision we make is never going to be popular with one hundred percent of our fans, but what we do know is that we have to make the best decision in the interest of our fans.
Dolgon referenced the team’s recent support of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as jerseys like their Pride jerseys and St. Patrick’s Day jerseys, as decisions that the team has made that have been unpopular with some of their fans. He briefly addressed some of the attacks the staff and fans who have been in support of the decision have dealt with. He admitted that some people have been downright nasty, but although he’s disappointed with some of the reactions, he wanted people to know there aren’t any hard feelings on behalf of the team.
“If you don’t believe in getting vaccinated, that’s okay. We only wish you good health.”
He stressed that the team is trying to improve the fans’ chances of being able to go to the game and reduce the chances of being seriously ill because of COVID-19. One of the big problems with Syracuse hosting games is the small size of the War Memorial. The building is old school, a relic from a bygone era of rough-and-tumble hockey, with fans very close together in both the seating areas and elsewhere in the building. With the team planning on going for full capacity at games, Dolgon felt the team had no choice but to go this route.
We play in a small building…The hallways are narrow. They’re not getting any bigger. We all want to live a healthy life and…to do what we can to get to normalcy. I remember having these chats last year. The message was the same. We need to be safe…we could have made some revenue (last season)…but sometimes you have to choose what’s right in the long run.
Dolgon mentioned that the team is thinking about creating a photocard for season ticket holders. This photo ID card will confirm who the season ticket holder is and that they are vaccinated and thus able to attend the game. This will streamline the gate process for the team’s season ticket holders. This plan is still in development, however, and more information will be forthcoming.
At the end of the day, Dolgon’s message was as consistent as it has been since the pandemic started:
“I feel strongly about making sure that all of you out there, our players and our staff, are safe. I’ll never apologize for taking that stand.”
The Crunch open their 2021-22 home schedule on Saturday, October 22 when they host the Utica Devils.
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