NHL suspends regular season, will resume play 'as soon as it is appropriate'
NHL arenas will be dark for the foreseeable future.
And when teams will return to the ice is really anyone's guess in the wake of commissioner Gary Bettman's announcement Thursday that the 2019-20 season has been suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move to "pause" the schedule comes after the NBA took the same measure Wednesday night following the revelation a member of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
"The NHL has been attempting to follow the mandates of health experts and local authorities, while preparing for any possible developments without taking premature or unnecessary measures," Bettman said in a statement following a conference call with the board of governors. "However, following news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus — and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker-rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point — it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time."
The NHL advised all its clubs earlier in the day not to conduct morning skates, practices or team meetings amid efforts to contain the outbreak.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks said Wednesday they would play upcoming home dates behind closed doors and without fans after state and local officials instituted bans on large gatherings of people, but there was no league-wide mandate.
There are 189 games — including 10 slated for Thursday — left on the NHL's regular-season calendar.
It's unclear what the hiatus means for those contests or the playoffs, which are scheduled to begin April 8.
"We will continue to monitor all the appropriate medical advice, and we will encourage our players and other members of the NHL community to take all reasonable precautions — including by self-quarantine, where appropriate," Bettman continued. "Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup.
"Until then, we thank NHL fans for your patience and hope you stay healthy."
If the NHL is eventually forced to go a drastic step further and cancel the season and playoffs, it would mark the third time since 1893 the Stanley Cup hasn't been awarded.
The Spanish flu forced the cancellation of the 1919 Cup final, while the entire 2004-05 campaign was lost to a lockout.
Another work stoppage shortened the 2012-13 season to 48 games, plus the playoffs.
The NHL Players' Association supported the league's move to suspend play.
"The decision to temporarily suspend play due to the COVID-19 pandemic is an appropriate course of action at this time," the union said in a statement. "The NHLPA will continue to closely monitor this very dynamic situation and remain in daily discussions with the league, our medical consultants, and our players regarding all aspects of this matter.
"The players are looking forward to the opportunity to resume play in front of hockey fans everywhere."
The NBA suspended its season after Utah centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, Gobert's teammate, also tested positive.
The NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer restricted access to locker-rooms earlier this week, including barring media, amid fears of spreading the virus.
Players and coaches instead spoke with reporters in adjacent media centres before and after games.
Teams across the NHL released statements later Thursday in support of the decision to put the league on ice, including one from Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.
"The health and safety of our fans, players, staff and media always remains at the forefront of our decision-making as a hockey club and league," Shanahan said. "Like you, we have many questions about what's to come in the future ... our thanks to our fans for their support and understanding as we continue to navigate this very fluid situation."
Sports leagues and tours around the world have either cancelled or postponed games and events as the coronavirus spreads.
MLS and MLB also both suspended their seasons on Thursday, while the Swiss hockey league announced it has ended the campaign in the top two divisions before the playoffs. The decision comes less than two months before Switzerland is due to host the men's world championship in Zurich and Lausanne.
The women's world championship, which was scheduled for Halifax and Truro, N.S., from March 31 to April 10, was cancelled by the International Ice Hockey Federation on Saturday.
Most people diagnosed with COVID-19 experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority of those who contract the virus recover. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the risk to the general population is low.
But for some, including those 65 years of age and over, those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions, the illness can be much more severe. Among the Canadians diagnosed with the illness, so far fewer than 15 per cent have required hospitalization.
The situation has changed drastically in North America in recent days.
Speaking at the NHL general managers meetings last week in Boca Raton, Fla., Bettman said the league was closely monitoring the situation.
"We're aware of what's happening in other places in the world and we understand that things may evolve or change," Bettman said on March 4. "We also understand that we're going to have to react to it in a professional and timely and sensible basis.
"But I don't think as we sit here today, people should get too far ahead of themselves."
Here is the full statement from the NHL:
“In light of ongoing developments resulting from the coronavirus, and after consulting with medical experts and convening a conference call of the Board of Governors, the National Hockey League is announcing today that it will pause the 2019‑20 season beginning with tonight’s games.
“The NHL has been attempting to follow the mandates of health experts and local authorities, while preparing for any possible developments without taking premature or unnecessary measures. However, following last night’s news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus – and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point – it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time.
“We will continue to monitor all the appropriate medical advice, and we will encourage our players and other members of the NHL community to take all reasonable precautions – including by self-quarantine, where appropriate. Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup. Until then, we thank NHL fans for your patience and hope you stay healthy.”