John Shipley: Ready or not, sports is back

John Shipley: Ready or not, sports is back

For this first time in over a year, fans came to St. Paul for a Wild game on Monday — a crowd of about 3,000 comprising front-line workers and season-ticket holders.

Or at least people who know season ticket holders.

Zach and Grant Kamp, brothers from Champlin, were at Xcel Energy Center courtesy their season-ticket holding father, Jeff. Steve and Dayis Amundson, who made the 3½-hour drive from Cook, Minn., got their tickets from a friend with season tickets. Kevin Foy from Circle Pines got his ticket from work.

Masked and seated in groups of two to four, the fans were spread throughout the 18,000-seat arena to watch the Wild play the Colorado Avalanche, the first to watch the local NHL team in person since the 2019-20 season was shut down by the novel coronavirus on March 12, 2020.

More than 555,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since last February, and cases are rising in Minnesota and throughout the country. But with a handful of effective vaccines now available to most adults, we’ve never seemed closer to getting back to our former lives.

It’s a weird place to be, but it’s better than it was last Thanksgiving, when Minnesota shut down a second time because of massive spikes in infections and death. At the X on Monday, there was optimism.

“I’m feeling pretty safe here,” Zach Kamp said after buying a Summit on the concourse. “They’ve got social distance, they’re enforcing the mask stuff. From what I’ve seen, everybody’s doing a good job. I think if they keep this up, I feel pretty safe here.”

Dayis Amundson was one of many fans wearing a Kirill Kaprisov jersey, a new sighting at Xcel Energy Center because the first-year winger from Russia hadn’t played in front of any Wild fans until Monday.

““He’s an awesome playmaker and just … goes,” she said. “It seems like he has no fear.”

They have that in common. Like the rest of the first sizable crowd to watch a Wild home game since March 3, 2020, Amundson had no apprehension about attending Monday’s game.

“No second thoughts,” she said.

The issue, of course, is whether we’re really ready to be dipping our toes back into normalcy. We’ve been here before; the numbers go down, we start taking our masks off and more people get sick and die.

Even with vaccinations accelerating ahead of schedule, it’s a leap of faith. And here we go.

The Wild had 3,000 at the X, and the Timberwolves allowed about 1,500 fans at Target Center in Minneapolis on Monday. The Twins are planning for about 10,000 to attend their home opener Thursday at Target Field after playing all of last season in empty stadiums.

We deserve a break, but is this the right time?

“I hope so,” said Brian McMillan, a Wild season-ticket holder from Minnetonka who was at Monday’s game with his son, Jack. “Hopefully we can not get cases through the roof and go backwards. But hopefully by summer we’ll be back to full scale.”

In Minnesota, about 1.2 million residents are fully vaccinated, and providers have been administering an average of 298,000 doses a week since March 1. This is as close as we’ve been to our old lives in a year that has, for most of us, seemed longer than a year.

But cases are up nationally, and Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, predicted Sunday that over the next two weeks we’ll see “the highest numbers of cases reported globally since the beginning of the pandemic.”

So, if you’re skittish, you’re in good company, and it’s worth noting that all the plans to open these venues were made before the Brazil, South African and U.K. variants started getting their hooks into the U.S.

It’s also worth noting that Xcel Energy Center wasn’t exactly a pool bar in the Ozarks on Monday. The nation might be eager want to “get drunk at Caesar’s Palace again,” as Meghan McCain put it, but everyone at Monday night’s game was masked, distanced and clothed. Small steps.

Let’s hope they keep us moving forward.

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