REGINA -- A few players sit on bench, looking out at a fresh sheet of ice in Regina’s Brandt Centre. It’s 30 minutes to game time and the familiar hustle and bustle of fans finding their way to their seats, concession crews working is gone. The rink has an eerie quiet to it, but the slow pace is welcome after to many who thought junior hockey wouldn’t happen this season at all.

“Every day is a victory because we’re playing the game,” Dave Struch, Pats head coach said, after a 5-2 loss Saturday to the Winnipeg Ice.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve covered hundreds of junior hockey games, but none like this. When fans watch NHL hockey or NFL football last season, artificial fan noise has been added to the telecasts. It’s a way, some major networks have said, to give the viewer a sense of normalcy. In-person, that doesn’t exist.

Enthusiasm, hard-hitting hockey and an up-tempo game remain. NHL scouts perched high above, jot notes as the play progresses. The Winnipeg Ice are a young team, fuelled by 11 first and second-round WHL bantam draft picks who’ve grown up together over the past couple of seasons. The Pats are in the midst of a re-tooling after their run to the Memorial Cup Final, that ended in a 3-0 loss to the champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan in 2018.

The absence of fan chatter is replaced by exuberant and sometimes colourful chatter on the ice. Every puck being called for, every coach’s instruction, clear as day from high above in section 223. Members of the media are confined to two rows (one and three), seated three seats apart. We’re used to an elevated view, although, not generally at the end of the ice sheet.

“It’s hockey 24/7,” Struch said of the hub format. “I think these kids should be relishing in the moment because of the opportunity. Yeah, it’s a short time, but the chance [to play] hockey and be around hockey guys all the time, for me it’s a privilege.”

There is one section of fans, but their cheers are flat. They’re cardboard cut-outs positioned in the corner directly opposite us. Music continues to play through each of the breaks between whistles, likely for TV and radio broadcasts, and let’s face it, for the players themselves. Ironically, as I write this, it’s Pharrell’s “Happy” playing and it matches my mood because I haven’t covered hockey in 13 very long months. Admittedly, it’s a bit emotional, as I’m sure it will be for many of you, whenever we can all meet at the rink for a game again, safely.

Along the west lower bowl sat players from the Winnipeg Ice’s taxi squad. They sat, socially distanced, with notepads, likely keeping stats as directed. On the east side, a handful of Pats players took in the action. Pats GM John Paddock perched in the second to last row in section 219, getting a closer than usual look at his players.

Kevin Shaw, writer for the junior hockey dedicated website ‘dubnetwork’, has seen 21 games from these seats. And he’s not done yet.

“It’s amazing. Its just good to see hockey,” Shaw said, noting not every game has been spectacular.

As you can imagine, COVID-19 restrictions are tight.

Shaw, too, noted the odd quiet in the rink. He said crowd noise was added over the public address system for a single game between Saskatoon and Winnipeg but it appeared abandoned going forward.

When a goal is scored, there’s perhaps a cheer from the players on the ice, and a few stick taps from that team’s bench. No roar. No goal song. No goal light ever flashes. It’s an odd sight. But, it’s hockey.

Walker mentioned with a lack of fans, the Pats lack the hometown advantage.

The Pats have reached the halfway mark in the shortened WHL campaign with a 4-6-2-0 record. Forwards Carson Denomie leads the league with 11 goals while linemate and exceptional status player Connor Bedard has 22 points on the year. For now, fans can see the young phenom, Bedard, play on the screen of their device or hear Phil Andrews call his every move on radio, but the team is certain, the buzz will drive fans to the Brandt Centre to see the team live, as soon as it’s safe for us to all gather again.

Let’s hope this season is the only one played, inside the Hub-ble.