Blue Jackets fans relish socially distanced watch parties

August 11, 2020

Originally published in The Columbus Dispatch by Allison Ward

The R Bar in the Arena District is hosting socially-distanced watch parties allowing Columbus Blue Jackets fans to gather together to cheer on their team, who is currently playing in a playoff-qualifying series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto.

When announcers at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto introduced Leo Welsh as the national anthem singer at the start of the Columbus Blue Jackets game Thursday night, the R Bar back home in the Arena District erupted in unison.

“LEO!”

That custom typically takes place before Welsh, the team’s anthem singer, performs “The Star-Spangled Banner” for home games at Nationwide Arena. Despite Thursday’s game happening 430 miles away in Toronto with no spectators in attendance — and Welsh performing the anthem via video conference from his home — fans at the bar wanted to feel like they were there.

Hearing the traditional “Leo” chant alone was worth the drive to the R Bar from Covington, Kentucky, said Jackets backers Justin and Sarah Farr. The couple traveled to Columbus from the Cincinnati suburb to participate in the R Bar’s watch parties for Game 3 on Thursday and Game 4 on Friday in the playoff-qualifying series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Jackets play the Leafs a final time Sunday in the best-of-five series to see who advances to the next round.

“Just to be with fans with similar interests is so nice,” Justin Farr, 33, said on Thursday. “Hearing that again brought some semblance of normalcy.”

On Thursday night, bartenders poured Stinger shots (tequila, blue curacao, Smirnoff Ice) named after the Blue Jackets mascot; heavy jerseys were the attire of choice despite the summer weather; and one fan even donned a festive blue wig, adding to the home-game vibe.

The Farrs also got to collectively groan with the socially distanced crowd when an early chance for a goal hit the cross bar. They had fellow CBJ fans to commiserate with every time Toronto found the back of the net to jump out to a 3-0 lead.

But being on the bar patio, just yards from Nationwide Arena, had to make it all the sweeter when their beloved team clawed back to win 4-3 in overtime and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. (On Friday, the Jackets dropped Game 4 to the Leafs, forcing another game.)

“I live for sports,” Justin Farr said. “These watch parties sort of make you feel like you’re there live.”

“It’s good to have hockey back in some way shape or form,” Sarah Farr added.

Normal is relative, though, these days.

For its watch parties, which started with Game 1 a week ago, R Bar is requiring reservations for its limited inside tables. Outside tables are spread 6 feet apart and are first-come, first-served. Parties of more than 10 aren’t allowed, and everyone must wear masks — those with Blue Jackets themes are encouraged — when not seated.

Fans are asked to remain seated whenever possible — no high-fives with nearby tables — and they can’t consume food or drink while standing. And due to recent restrictions, last call for alcohol happened at 9:45 p.m., before the third period even began.

The scene Thursday night was almost unrecognizable compared with the playoffs last year, R Bar general manager Rebecca Handy said.

“For a normal game, it would be a sea of people, shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall,” she said. “At max (now), we’re at a quarter of capacity.”

Still, she is grateful that anyone is showing up to their watch parties these days.

“It was a massive relief,” Handy said, adding that reservations have mostly sold out and outdoor seating filled up before the start of the past three games. “We were nervous and didn’t know if people would show up with everything going on.

“It’s nice to see that the Blue Jackets fans are as dedicated as they say they are.”

Thursday night marked the third evening this past week that Robb Beard came to the R Bar to cheer on his team.

“This is our hockey bar, our ‘home ice,’” said Beard, 55, of Pickerington, who sat at a table with his wife Tammy, 52, and her cousin, Kate Hoferkamp, 27.

The couple – him in a navy home jersey and her in one with forward Oliver Bjorkstrand’s name on it – have been itching for the season to resume.

“She’s been waiting months for this,” Robb Beard said.

“It’s awesome,” Tammy said.

The night out with a few friends was a welcome relief for fan Brandon Edwards, especially after months of staying in.

“For me, hockey has been my first foray back into civilization,” the 30-year-old Italian Village resident said. “It’s great to have a shared experience sitting with friends rather than at home texting about it.”

Edwards said he felt safe coming to the R Bar with the tables spread out and the mask requirements. His featured the Blue Jackets logo.

His group anticipated the bar would do last call during the third period so they got their last drinks early. The bar itself was able to stay open until the end of the game, despite it being after 11 p.m.

“We all had our normal life so abruptly stopped in so many facets — work and all the things, like sports, that distract us from work and life,” Edwards said. “Now, we’re not just coming back to the regular season, but to playoff hockey.”

And that’s reason to celebrate, as safely as possible.

Still, Jordan Mitchell, 26, commented how weird it was to be wearing jerseys with shorts in August. She and three girlfriends relished the opportunity to have a bit of “atmosphere” for the big game.

“I spent months watching every replay on Fox Sports Ohio,” Mitchell said. “It sounds silly, but to have live hockey back, I feel whole again.”

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