Sports void weighs on Erie-area fans during shutdown – Sports –

Absence making fans realize how much watching, rooting for teams, athletes mean to them.

Chris and Brian Williams consider themselves fortunate in one way.

At least the McKean couple haven’t had to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chris Williams, 51, is a medical office receptionist while Brian Williams, 48, is a UPS driver. Each job provides enough social distancing to allow that.

As for their hockey lives, that’s different.

Different in a way never fathomed.

Before last week, the couple never anticipated they’d be anywhere else but in their normal seats at Erie Insurance Arena for this weekend’s Erie Otters games.

The Otters were scheduled to conclude their 2019-20 Ontario Hockey League regular season with home games against Flint on Saturday and Kitchener on Sunday.

It was to be a key weekend in determining if the Otters would qualify for the postseason.

However, all that was scrapped Wednesday when OHL commissioner David Branch canceled the remainder of the regular season because of the pandemic.

If the league does hold a postseason, the Erie Otters will be part of it.

For now, though, that doesn’t do much to fill the hockey void the Williams’ are experiencing.

“We’re creatures of habit,” Chris Williams said. “If we’re not at the arena for the Otters’ games during weekends in the winter, we’re home watching NHL games on the Center Ice (television) package. Now, we’re lost. Really, we’re lost.”

“I know peoples’ health is much more important than sports,” Williams said, “but sports are important.”

Whether Williams knew it or not, she likely spoke for untold Erie-area fans and beyond with that comment.

The current absence of sports at all levels, be it locally or nationally, is unprecedented in sports history.

That’s not an exaggeration, either, according to 79-year old Joe Gaeta.

“I never thought I’d experience anything like this in my lifetime,” he said. “I’ve already got cabin fever. You’d never catch me staying at home, especially around this time of year because I’m so involved in (Gannon University’s) booster club.“

Gaeta was a founder of that club for his alma mater, where he graduated in 1962.

The former Golden Knights basketball player, who was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame, was in unexpected agony when he learned the NCAA canceled the remainder of its winter sports season.

That included its Division II women’s basketball tournament. Gannnon had been scheduled host the March 13-14 Atlantic Region games at Hammermill Center, where Gaeta was supposed to be fervently supporting the host Lady Knights.

“The thing I really feel so bad about is coach (Cleve) Wright and the players,” Gaeta said. “I was really looking forward to seeing how they’d do against (regional semifinal opponent) California because they’d beaten them twice during the regular season. Now they’ll never get that (chance) back.”

“Then you realized that also meant no March Madness and no sports on TV,” he said. “There’s nothing. Seriously, it’s totally amazing.”

The sports void is not just limited to watching them but playing them, too.

Not only were indoor athletic facilities closed, but also outdoor venues like golf courses.

Dave Hewett, president of the Erie District Golf Association, didn’t plan on breaking out the clubs so early in the year. However, that didn’t make the near-global shutdown of all things sports any easier for him.

“Sports equals life,” Hewett said. “For a lot of people, sports has been a part of their lives since they were little. I know when I was young, my dad would take me golfing and bowling and to softball games at 11th and Hess. I think that’s why it’s just so odd right now that we don’t know what to do.”

Erie resident George DeSanti, like Hewett, can be found on the area links during the summer.

At night, the 80-year-old retiree also likes to attend Erie SeaWolves’ games at UPMC Park.

Basketball, though, is DeSanti’s wheelhouse sport when it comes to watching both in person and on TV.

The Academy graduate went so far as to refer to what he’s experiencing right now as withdrawal symptoms.

“It’s absolutely crazy,” he said. “You realize now how sports are a big part of your life.”

Also shut down are Erie County’s YMCA locations. It’s at the Glenwood branch where Steve Pappas, 62, has become a regular in the facility’s morning pickleball sessions.

Pappas, who retired after 36 years at GE Transportation, is a renaissance man when it comes to sports participation.

Watching Bobby Orr lead the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cup championships in the early ’70s drew him to play hockey. Serving as billets to former Otters only grew his love for the sport.

A later foray into tennis is what drew Pappas to pickleball, a mini-version of that game.

“Sports have always been ingrained since I was a little kid,” he said. “I think that’s why I miss it all right now, and all of the nice people I’ve met at the Y.”

Nancy Herbst, 60, doesn’t miss watching sports as much as others, but she does miss training for them.

Herbst finished second in the women’s overall standings for the 2019-20 Highmark Quad Games.

The record 12-time champion managed that result even though she continues to recover from a foot fracture.

Herbst and her husband, Chuck, returned from a two-week vacation in Aruba on March 18. That was the day before flights to and from the Caribbean island were canceled.

Because of that, Herbst said she’s taken even more precautions than suggested to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. She only goes outside when necessary.

Herbst said jokingly that walking the aisles of a grocery store is what constituted a workout last week.

“It’s not really the same thing,” she said. “You just don’t get that same endorphin rush.”

The global sports vacuum likely will end when the coronavirus is under control, neutralized or eradicated.

It could be weeks. Months, even.

Hewett, though, offered a quote that any sports fan or athlete would appreciate.

“We will persevere,” Hewett said. “Some how, some way, we’ll get through this.”

Mike Copper can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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