Benjamin de Waard flew 1,500 miles hoping to see his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs play the Kraken on Sunday in the first-ever visit by the storied “Original Six” franchise.

Instead, he’ll head back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Tuesday having been denied the birthday opportunity after the NHL postponed the game due to what’s since climbed to nine Maple Leafs players and coaches being in COVID-19 protocol. De Waard said he is “devastated” but understanding of the need to prioritize safety when it comes to the risk of spreading the coronavirus throughout the locker room and greater community.

“I was reading about all these other games being postponed but I was hopeful this one would be OK,” said de Waard, who arrived in town Thursday. “Then, I heard about this one and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Oh my gosh, this is not cool.’ But hey, I get it. I’m all for player safety and making sure they don’t spread it. I know they’ve got families, too. But it’s a bummer.”

As in all parts of society, sports fans do appear to be traveling less to road games during the pandemic. A major part of it is fear of contracting the coronavirus. But now, NHL games being put off almost daily amid the new omicron variant surge has added a new wrinkle of uncertainty for those plunking down money on plane tickets and hotel rooms.

The Maple Leafs had four players in protocol when the game was postponed. Three more have since been added along with two coaches.

Ontario-born de Waard, a lifelong Leafs fan, is somewhat fortunate in that his father gifted him a ticket using airline points for his 37th birthday, which was Saturday. He’s also staying with family in the area, having previously lived in Lynden for four years before relocating to South Dakota. 

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It was while residing here that de Waard and a buddy first got on the Kraken season-ticket waiting list and agreed to purchase a pair together. That changed once de Waard moved out of state but the pal still bought the tickets and invited him to the Toronto game when the person he now shares the seats with couldn’t go. 

Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said the lack of visiting team fans is partly responsible for the decline in resale value of the team’s tickets since the start of the season. New York-based TicketIQ, which uses proprietary software to track 90% of the secondary market, said last week the asking price for Kraken tickets had declined 34% since the start of the season.

“We miss them,” Leiweke said of visiting team fans. “I never thought I’d say that, but we miss them. It’s actually a good part of the game experience. A good thing for the community, it’s good for the hotels, it’s good for bars. It’s good for people that are reselling their tickets.

“We miss them, but they’ll come back.”

The Kraken still had the highest secondary market asking prices of any NHL team by far at an average of $325 per seat. But the actual sale prices realized for those tickets on platforms such as StubHub, SeatGeek and Ticketmaster often winds up far lower than what’s being asked for and has irked some season-ticket holders who initially paid more for their seats. 

The Maple Leafs game would ordinarily have been a prime draw; a 104-year-old franchise with 13 Stanley Cup championships under its belt. The Leafs haven’t won a championship since 1967 but are under constant pressure to do so by a demanding fan base that travels very well.

Tens of thousands of those fans reside just north of Seattle in British Columbia, their family loyalty to the Leafs preceding the Vancouver Canucks joining the NHL in 1970. The Leafs entered Sunday with 42 points, just one out of the overall NHL lead as their core of young stars led by Auston Matthews seeks to end the Cup drought.

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“I’ll tell you what, it’s a bummer not to play tonight,” Leiweke said. “This would have been a super cool event for the city to play the Toronto Maple Leafs in our inaugural season. It’s a major buzzkill.”

It sure was for de Waard’s birthday plans. He did have some consolation in getting to take in Saturday night’s Everett Silvertips win over the Seattle Thunderbirds in Western Hockey League action — part of a birthday gift from his local relatives.

“All in all, I’ve had some fun and I’m grateful,” de Waard said. “I can still be with my family and I didn’t have to shell out a ton of money to be here. So, that (WHL game) was a good consolation prize. But yeah, I really wanted to see the Leafs play the Kraken for the first time, so it’s disappointing.”