Credit: Jason Rogers

It started with ghosts at first. Ninety minutes before the puck dropped in the first Washington Capitals home game in more than a year played in front of fans at Capital One Arena, the production crew began testing the pumped-in crowd noise that has become ubiquitous in NHL broadcasts. But as the 2,100 fans began to arrive, real sounds slowly replaced the artificial ones.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Capitals radio play-by-play announcer John Walton told City Paper as he took in the scene. “Two thousand fans is going to feel like a million.”

Fans in red Alex Ovechkin jerseys filtered down the aisles, the tallboys of Bud Light recognizable but the face masks and hand sanitizer stations new. A timidity hung over the arena, an eagerness to get back to “normal,” tempered with the understanding that this was anything but.

Yet as the player introductions started, the pregame hype videos played and the bass began to thump, the awkwardness melted away. Fans screamed the word “red” along with Bob McDonald as he sang the national anthem, just like they always do. They booed both the opposing team and the referees as they took the ice, just like they always do. They cheered as their favorite players were introduced on the jumbotron, just like they always do. This was, after all, only a hockey game.

Except that it wasn’t. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic during which more than 570,000 Americans died and millions more paused their lives, the return of fans to Capital One Arena on Tuesday was not just a hockey game.

“It’s pretty emotional. I just walked in and almost teared up when I saw the ice for the first time,” season ticket-holder Mahesh Prasad told City Paper. “It’s been a long 419 days, but I’m glad to finally be home.”

Home. It’s a word that was repeated over and over throughout the night, in videos welcoming fans back to the arena and in conversations overheard on the concourse and outside on F Street NW. By the time Capitals forward Daniel Sprong scored just 1:29 into the game to give Washington the 1-0 lead they would hold for its duration; by the time 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara dropped his gloves to fight late in the second period; and by the time rookie goaltender Vitek Vanecek recorded the 18-save shutout that lifted Washington back into first place in the East Division, the 90-percent empty arena felt as full of cathartic joy and enthusiasm as any home could.

“It’s better hockey. It’s really nice to have [fans] back,” Vanecek told reporters after the game.

“It felt like your first NHL game all over again. There’s no words to describe what it feels like to have the fans back in the rink. They’re our support system,” echoed winger Tom Wilson.

Of course, the Capitals, this city, and the nation all still have a long way to go. With seven games remaining in the regular season, Washington is clinging to a single-point lead in the standings. And nearly 14 months into this pandemic, vaccines are becoming more widely available but vulnerable populations around the world continue to be adversely impacted. There is still far too much hanging in the balance to allow naivety and foolishness to cloud our judgement or cause us to declare premature victory.

Yet for one nondescript Tuesday night inside a mostly-empty arena in Northwest D.C., it felt like maybe, just maybe, we were closer to home than we’d been in a long time.