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Near-Capacity Garden Crowd Creates Incredible Bruins Atmosphere For First Time In Over A Year

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Governor Charlie Baker declared COVID-19 to be "pretty much over" on Friday afternoon. One night later, Bruins fans at TD Garden left no doubt.

In the first game in the building with COVID restrictions lifted, some 17,000 fans packed into the arena to watch Game 1 between the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The scene was something to behold.

The new world for Boston was evident hours before puck drop, as thousands of fans roamed the area surrounding the Garden. The bars -- the ones that survived the long gap without patrons, that is -- had lines stretches up and down Canal Street, and massive crowds gathered at the Hub entrance on Causeway Street as well as throughout North Station, waiting for the gates to open.

"I think everybody's excited. I think everbody's ready for this to be over with. I'm sure it's going to be a great time," said one Bruins fan to WBZ-TV.

Around 6:30 p.m., for the first time since March 7, 2020, a full Garden's worth of fans made their way to their seats. An hour or so later, the Bruins took the ice to a half-full arena -- already a significantly larger crowd than the 25 percent that had been allowed for the previous several weeks.

Earlier on Saturday, Fenway Park opened its gates without restrictions for an afternoon game against the Miami Marlins. The team announced a paid attendance of over 25,000 people at Fenway Park, which holds over 37,000 fans. The cold and damp weather might have muted the general environment for that game, which the Red Sox won 3-1. But there was nothing quiet about the full-throttle roar for playoff hockey across town.

"Just happy to be here, be out, see people together. Some have masks, some don't have masks," said one Fenway fan who brought his family to the game said to WBZ-TV. "Just happy to be here."

A.J. Quetta, the Bishop Feehan hockey player who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in January, helped get the crowd riled up, as he served as the team's honorary fan banner captain.

AJ Quetta
Bishop Feenhan hockey player AJ Quetta serves as the Bruins' fan banner captain before Game 1 of Boston's second-round series against the Islanders. It marked the first Bruins game without COVID restrictions for attendance. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

When the Bruins and Islanders finally hit the ice around 8:15 p.m., the volume was deafening.

With a section behind the teams' benches and behind the penalty boxes still sectioned off, it wasn't quite the full capacity of TD Garden. But the listed attendance on the official NHL game sheet was 17,400.

Fenway Park will be open for full capacity again on Sunday, as will the Garden for Game 4 of the Celtics-Nets playoff series. Fans at the Garden were required to fill out a health survey before arriving, and they were required to wear masks (while not eating or drinking) inside the arena. So things aren't yet normal normal just yet.

Yet as the Bruins erased a 1-0 deficit early, then poured in three goals in the third period to win 5-2, everything seemed to be the way it used to be.

"It's a different sport with them in the building," David Pastrnak, who netted his 12th career hat trick in the win, said of having fans back. "Definitely kind of warms your heart and reminds you why you play the sport. It was awesome to have them back."

Head coach Bruce Cassidy said that he took a moment to look around and soak it in as the 17,000-plus fans in attendance went nuts as the hats flew onto the ice.

"It was just a good moment to look around and see a lot of joy," Cassidy said.

From here on out, barring any significant changes in COVID-19 cases, the doors will be open for full houses in just about all places where they were before. That will be evident everywhere -- in stores, restaurants, street festivals, etc. -- but nowhere will it be larger and move prevalent than these large-scale, high-profile sporting events.

This moment has been developing slowly. Last year, a full arena for a playoff hockey game was the farthest thing from anyone's mind. At times in 2020, getting back to normal seemed almost impossible. In the sports world, "bubbles" and empty arenas became the norm. But numbers steadily improved, vaccinate rates soared, fans started arriving -- first at 12 percent in Boston, then at 25 percent -- and it all led to an absolute eruption of emotion at TD Garden on Saturday night.

It was a moment 14 months in the making. And every one of the fans in attendance celebrated accordingly.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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