A stripped-down Staples Center was a strange sight to Nick Bonino during the Wild's debut last week in Los Angeles, but what he heard wasn't unusual.
Not only was there constant chatter among Bonino and his Wild teammates, but the center also picked up on the soundtrack that blared from the speakers.
"They blocked a shot and immediately the crowd went, 'Ohhh,' " Bonino said. "The technicians there, they're doing a pretty good job. I think it's pretty cool to have that. I'm sure back in Minnesota, it'll be the same."
Instead of going back to the neutral-site bubbles used during last season's playoffs that hosted multiple games each day, the NHL decided the 2021 season will be based out of individual arenas and teams are putting their own spin on the fan-less experience.
What that means for Wild players at Xcel Energy Center is an atmosphere catered to them, a tailor-made vibe they'll discover when the team plays its home opener Friday against San Jose.
"The audience that we're building a game for totally changes," said Mitch Helgerson, the Wild's senior vice president of marketing and ticket sales. "It's not built for fans any longer. Now, really, we're building the game ops for the team and players. That's the biggest change."
For weeks, the Wild has been preparing for its new normal — even planning for home events before the NHL officially rubber-stamped a 56-game, division-only season.
And although this is uncharted territory, the team knows its mission: To replenish some of the intensity lost by the lack of 17,000-plus screaming and clapping fans.
"We're going to do our best to try to provide some sort of home-ice advantage," Helgerson said.
Crowd noise will be piped in and captured on the TV broadcast. But unlike the constant roar that greeted the Wild at Staples Center during the team's season-opening series against the Kings, the Wild is going for authentic acoustics. The team also hopes to work in familiar cheers such as "Let's Go Wild," and Nordy's signature drum beat. (Nordy will be on hand for most games.)
Otherwise, the set list will be curated by the Wild.
The team is collaborating with the players to determine what music blasts during the lead-up to puck drop, in between whistles and when players return from intermission.
Usually, the Wild is trying to appeal to its fan base with these tunes. But with fans currently not allowed in, the playlist is being picked by the players.
They're also going to select a new goal song for the season, giving the team's usual "Crowd Chant" by Joe Satriani a break, and it's possible this celebration jam rotates throughout the season. The Wild is also bringing in a DJ to add to the ambience.
"It's kind of like the baseball walk-up song," Bonino said. "Get to show a little personality."
But Xcel Energy Center won't only sound differently.
The arena will have a unique look, with rows empty and sections covered by tarps that'll showcase sponsors — one of the ways the league is promoting its partners without fans in attendance.
Ads are also being shown along the glass, on helmets and in a virtual manner inside the blue line that will translate to TV.
Even though most season-ticket holders have paid up for the season, team President Matt Majka said the Wild has taken a major financial hit without being able to fill the seats, an effect Majka described as "incredibly difficult."
Ticket sales are the team's primary revenue source, and fans at games spark food, beverage, and merchandise purchases. Season ticket holders have been given the option to use their payments toward next season, when season ticket prices will remain the same.
Majka didn't specify the team's exact losses, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman implied before the season started that the leaguewide toll is at least $1 billion rather than in the millions and said it would be cheaper for owners to keep their teams shuttered. The Wild and the other 30 NHL teams will each lose tens of millions of dollars during the pandemic, perhaps more than $50 million.
"We are among the most affected industries during the pandemic," Majka said. "We were first in, and we're probably among the last out in terms of the impact of the virus."
The Wild hopes to be able to welcome back fans at some point during the season.
For now, though, the team is limited to 150 attendees and those spots are being doled out to family members and friends of players (the same allotment the Vikings did during their season). Eventually, that group could include some team employees and sponsors.
"It's nice that our families will be able to come and watch at least," captain Jared Spurgeon said. "It's going to be different."
And even though Wild fans won't be at Xcel Energy Center, the team is still including them in game-night activities.
The pre-puck drop "Let's Play Hockey" chant and flag-bearer will be done virtually, and the team is working to showcase how fans are watching the Wild from home.
Front-line workers also will be honored on Friday.
"The open of the game hopefully will feel pretty similar," Helgerson said.
A pregame hype video will play on the Jumbotron, and crowd prompts are likely to scroll across the screen. Anthem singer John deCausmeaker will sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" live, and PA announcer Adam Abrams will also be in-house, calling out goals and penalties.
"We can't wait to be in our building," Wild coach Dean Evason said. "We love our building. The city will give us energy. The Twin Cities will give us energy even if [fans aren't] sitting in the seats."
How the production comes across Friday could change as the Wild gets deeper into its 28-game home slate, with the team ready to adapt to find the right feel.
But by keeping some traditional elements, the team is in position to have a smooth transition back to normalcy whenever that arrives.
"We can't wait for fans to be back in the building," Spurgeon said.