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Condors to host Henderson in first home game in 341 days

Teddy Bear Toss

Luke Esposito (9) of the Condors fights for the puck during the Teddy Bear Toss game last season. Esposito and his Bakersfield teammates will return to their home ice for the first time in nearly a year on Friday.

Jay Woodcroft can still remember the intensity that flowed through Mechanics Bank Arena last March 7.

On Star Wars Night, a raucous crowd of 7,642, many of whom were donning costumes, was treated to a thriller, one that saw the hometown Bakersfield Condors come out on top. Behind a goal by Kirill Maksimov and four saves by goalie Shane Starrett, Bakersfield eked out a 4-3 shootout win over Stockton.

"That's (what) my memory of the last time standing behind the bench here at Mechanics Bank Arena felt like," Condors coach Woodcroft said of playing in front of a "rocking crowd" on that evening.

It would be a thrill the organization has yet to feel again.

The reason the Stockton win, which took place 341 days ago, is Woodcroft's last memory of a gameday setting at Mechanics Bank is that he literally has not been behind the bench for a regular season game at the arena since, as the COVID-19 pandemic would soon lead to the rest of the American Hockey League season being canceled.

Woodcroft and the rest of the Condors will, at long last, have the opportunity to make new memories this weekend, as the team will open the home portion of its season with a pair of games against Henderson. Puck drop for the first game of the series will be at 5 p.m. Friday. Saturday's game begins at 8 p.m.

This weekend's environment will be a far cry from the rowdiness of last March, as fans are not allowed in the arena.

Having played in front of an empty arena for the first time last weekend in two road contests against San Diego, center Brad Malone says he's still adjusting to the quiet setting. And though he and his teammates will miss the noise, it's an adjustment that simply has to be made.

"(Bakersfield is) one of the best environments in the American League in terms of local support, so that's going to be a different thing," said Malone, a team captain. "But everybody in the league and all around professional sports is in that situation. It’s a good lesson for all us to be professionals and keep going forward here.”

The Condors (0-2), will need to be locked in as they look to contain a potent Silver Knight offense that netted 11 goals in a season-opening, two-game sweep of Ontario.

Even in a weird setting, Woodcroft says there's still palpable excitement in the locker room for a long-overdue return to the home ice.

"A few months ago, we didn't even know if we were going to have that opportunity," Woodcroft said. "We're excited about being able to even just have this home opener."

HEAVY HEARTS

Friday will also mark the team's first home game since the tragic death of Colby Cave, who passed away from a brain bleed at just 25 years old last April.

Woodcroft says the effect of Cave's passing hit even harder, as COVID-19 protocols prevented the team from grieving together.

“The hardest part for us as a team last year, going through all the emotions that go along with the tragic passing of a young man in the prime of his life was … everybody was in a different part of the world," Woodcroft said. "It didn’t allow us to grieve together. (That was) probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with was to make sure our team felt connected with each other and got through it together, as well as to support Colby’s family.”

Giving players and coaches the opportunity to grieve together was a priority when the team reported to training camp last month, as veterans have not only shared their favorite personal stories of Cave, but also discussed the impact his passing had on them with team newcomers.

Though the wound remains fresh, those who knew Cave say having the chance to talk things out in person has at least provided small doses of closure.

“There are no words really to conceptualize it, how much of a tragedy it is," center Luke Esposito said. "It is nice being back together with teammates but it’s still really difficult to put into words sometimes. Just having that feeling of being with your teammates is enough to help the mourning process.

"The way I look at it is just how grateful and thankful I am and all of us are to have gotten a chance to know him even for a short period of time. It’s a terribly sad situation but it’s nice being back together and we’ll do our best to honor him.”