Gila River Arena

A limited amount of fans could attend the Arizona Coyotes’ home opener at Gila River Arena because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Linda Riggins was first in line at Gate 3 before the Arizona Coyotes’ season opener at Gila River Arena.

Riggins, a season ticket holder, and her son, Keith Traub, arrived three and a half hours early. They were ready to watch hockey.

“I was just so happy to be there,” Riggins said. “My son was in seventh heaven, and it was just great. That means everything to me.”

Riggins was one of 2,274 fans in attendance during the 4-3 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks. The Coyotes had 2,384 fans during Saturday’s 5-3 win.

The Jan. 14 game was the largest attended sporting event in Arizona since late November, when the Arizona Cardinals hosted as many as 4,200 fans at State Farm Stadium.

Before a whistle was blown, the organization honored those on the front line of the pandemic.

As the lights dimmed and everyone turned their attention to the scoreboard, Coyotes President and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez presented a message to health workers, dedicating their 25th anniversary season to them.

“It was awesome,” said Coyotes forward Clayton Keller, who scored the Coyotes’ second goal. “I think all of us were a little surprised. It felt like there were a lot more people there. We were so pumped to see that. To have the fans back in the building was unbelievable. Friends of mine and our teammates that were able to come to the game were all just so pumped. We’re really looking forward to the rest of the home games in front of the awesome fans we have.”

Coyotes goaltender Antti Raanta enjoyed the fans’ presence in a 31-save performance.

“It definitely feels so much better than what it was in the bubble,” Raanta said. “It’s super nice to go on the ice and see some people in there, hearing some yells and some cheers for us. It gives you a lot more than what an empty building would do. It’s been nice to see the fans again. They gave us a lot of extra energy in the games.”

Fans said they enjoyed the change of pace for the shortened season. Not only does it allow the team to generate some revenue, but it allows fans to experience something they’ve missed for nearly a year.

“Us players, we always appreciate playing in front of a lot of fans,” Coyotes forward Derick Brassard said. They make the atmosphere; they make the game great. Hopefully in the next few months we can play in every building around the league with fans in the stands.”

For now, the attendance has been limited to 2,500 fans to complement spacing. The Coyotes first announced they would host a maximum of 3,450 fans for the team’s six January home games at Gila River Arena, including Thursday, Jan. 28, when the Coyotes host the Anaheim Ducks.

The team will determine the seating capacity for each month of the season, in accordance with the guidelines of Gila River Arena and the city of Glendale.