On the list of “What’s New?” this NHL season, add a new wrinkle fans will notice before they even get to their seats. Each of the league’s 30 buildings will require patrons to pass through airport-style metal detectors to gain entry.
The machines are already in use now with the beginning of the NHL preseason on Sunday in Nashville. About a third of the arenas were already equipped with these magnetometers, but new regulations have mandated them for all 30 NHL facilities.
In the eyes of the league, it’s a move to improve the fan experience, providing a safer environment and using the best available technology to make the screening process quicker and more efficient.
In the last few weeks, NHL teams have begun spreading the word though their websites, on social media, in press releases and in providing stories in the general media that NHL fans should be prepared for this change.
Some clubs have attempted to soften the message, using their mascots to get the word out with some humorous touches. The Jets and Ducks, for example, recently posted these videos on their websites:
“We left it open to the teams and arenas to be as creative as they wanted,” said Dennis Cunningham, the NHL’s Executive Vice President for Security.
“People have been used to going through them from airports,” Cunningham added. “I suspect a sporting event it going to be a different atmosphere, so there is a little learning curve for the screeners and the fans. But in the long run, it’s safer and more convenient and is the right use of technology in the current environment.”
Cunningham traced some of the more horrific incidents in “the current environment” – senseless shootings in movie theaters, houses of worship, elementary schools, and shopping malls – then added, “I don’t think anyone can take the position that it is unlikely or unthinkable at a hockey game. It can happen anywhere.
“We don’t need a horrific situation to occur before something has to be done,” he continued. “Our job is to anticipate and do something proactively. These machines are not intrusive or overbearing, and -- outside of, perhaps, a minor inconvenience to the timeline fans are used to arriving -- this is not too much to ask for the overall general safety.”
In fact, NHL fans have been subject to screening for the past few seasons by arena security attendants using hand-held wands. Cunningham reports the wands turned up a surprisingly wide array of weapons, and not just firearms (often in the possession of off-duty law enforcement personnel). “They had mace, brass knuckles, knives, and other contraband,” he said.
One Western Conference team executive confirmed that Cunningham’s findings reflected the results of the wand screening in his building, noting he had no doubt that these objects had gotten into the arenas in the years prior to screening. “The reality is, people were able to bring in stuff that we didn’t want in the building, sometimes innocently. And some had it in there intentionally.”
Last February, the league informed the teams it was best to transition to a more sophisticated setup, one which is not only more effective, but also easier on both the screeners and for the fans.
If any teams balked at the expense involved – each machine costs between $3,000 and $3,500 – resistance likely evaporated after a March incident during an NBA game in Boston, when a fan was slashed with a box cutter during an altercation in the stands. Cunningham called that incident a “tipping point” in selling the NHL clubs on taking this next step.
Sunday’s first two preseason games between the Predators and Panthers in Nashville inaugurated the magnetometers in the Bridgestone Arena for hockey games, although they were used over the summer for concerts in the building.
“The metal detectors we’ve gotten, all you’ll need to take out is your cell phones,” said Gerry Helper, the Predators Senior Vice President of Communications and Public Relations. “You can walk through with your keys, your change, and if you set it off, it may well be because you have something inappropriate. Then, you would just be taken off to the side and a more extensive search would be done.
“But provided you have nothing, you’ll go through there much more quickly and efficiently than the wanding process. And I think the fans will feel safer.”
One Nashville season ticket holder, Marc Nathan, praised the new machines after the first preseason game, saying they were quicker than the wanding. “Last night, things seemed to go smoothly through the machines,” he said on Monday.
Nathan moved to Nashville a few years ago from Los Angeles, where he’d had Kings season tickets. With the highly sensitive metal detectors at Staples Center, “I was constantly loading things into the bowl.” Being diabetic, Nathan had to completely empty his pockets for years; keys, change and even his insulin bottles and glucose meter would trigger the Staple Center magnetometers. Not so in Nashville.
He was equally pleased that the Predators had installed the machines since, after he moved to Nashville, he recognized the different culture surrounding firearms, which are more open and prevalent in that city. The new security measures make him feel safer at the Preds' games.
Although the new metal detectors may speed up entry compared to the wanding, some teams are taking the precautionary step of asking their fans to arrive earlier than in past years in case there are delays with the new process.
“There might be some slow down at first, but fans are resilient and they’ll make the necessary adjustments,” said Cunningham. “Fans don’t mind inconvenience if they think the process is legitimate and it has a verifiable goal. They would feel angry if they waited 20 minutes, if it was done sloppily or it was a charade.”
But, Cunningham added, the clubs have put as much effort into training their screening personnel as they have communicating with fans about the changes. “We don’t think it’s rocket science and we hope it’s not tremendously intrusive to anyone.”