Canada

The locker rooms have been closed across North America — what’s next for the NHL and other pro leagues?

Jason Spezza stepped to the podium inside the media room at the Scotiabank Arena and, as he got behind the microphone and looked out at the media, he said one word: “Playoffs.”

It was not wishful thinking. It was an acknowledgment that things are different now thanks to the spreading of the deadly coronavirus.

The Maple Leafs, like teams across the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, are closing their dressing rooms to outsiders and will limit fan and media access to players.

So, for the next little while, the players will come to the media and stand at a distance to answer questions, much like it’s done in the Stanley Cup final.

“We’re not experts,” said Spezza. “We listen to the experts and take their recommendations. Player safety is obviously a serious thing. And it’s our job to listen and do what we’re told.”

The four professional sports leagues issued a joint statement Monday night, saying they made the decision “after consultation with infectious disease and public health experts.” The NBA, in a call with teams earlier Monday, stressed that the move is not to ban reporters but to ensure the safety of players and staff in those areas. The leagues say the changes are temporary.

And while it hasn’t come to it yet, it remains a possibility games could be played in empty arenas.

“Part of what fuels us and gives us an adrenalin rush is the people in the crowd. So it would be definitely strange if that’s what it comes to,” Spezza said.

“No question you want to play with people in the building,” said Leafs captain John Tavares. “There’s a lot of circumstances that go into it. I hate playing the ‘what if’ game because I truly believe and hope we won’t get to that point.”

But every possibility is on the table: Continue as normal, continue in empty stadiums, cancel the season, delay the start of the playoffs.

Around the world and across Canada, different leagues and sporting institutions are dealing with the spread of the virus’s health scare differently. The women’s world hockey championship in Halifax and Truro, N.S., was cancelled at the behest of health authorities there. Meanwhile the Brier finished to full houses in Kingston, and the women’s curling world championships seem set to carry on in British Columbia next week.

What will the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman do? Most likely follow the lead of federal health authorities on both sides of the border.

“The commissioner represents the league and the ownership, but at the end of the day, Gary is a lawyer through and through and he’s not going to do anything that jeopardizes people’s health,” said NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton, a former player, agent and general manager. “The guiding light in my opinion for the National Hockey League will be common sense.”

Behind the scenes, with few people willing to speak on the record, the coronavirus has people throwing around words like “fear,” “panic” and “uncharted territory.”

The pressure, no doubt, will be on Bettman to keep the gates open. While the NBA’s coffers are full thanks to a hefty TV contract, the NHL is a gate-driven league. And cancelling games or playing to empty arenas could “crater” hockey-related revenue (HRR), in the words of a former executive.

NHL salaries are tied directly to revenue. If the league doesn’t meet its revenue targets, that means the players will only get a fraction of the salary they signed for.

“No question it will affect the (salary) cap,” said another executive.

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How much is the big question.

This season, 14 per cent of player salaries are being held in escrow, with money paid back to owners if the league fails to meet revenue targets. This is how the NHL has done business since 2005 and the dawning of the salary cap.

But this is different. Not only was the league already on track to miss its revenue targets by about 10 per cent, according to one source, the coronavirus scare could make it worse, by another five or 10 per cent.

Each playoff game generates about $2 million to $3 million (U.S.) in revenue. Last year, the NHL featured 97 playoff games, generating between $200 million and $300 million of revenue.

If that revenue dries up, then the 14 per cent of escrow won’t be enough to cover the owners’ losses and players may have to dip into their own pockets and pay money back.

There is a possibility some teams have disaster insurance that can cover financial losses incurred by games cancelled by government order. That might mitigate the issue.

It could affect next year’s salary cap, even if the coronavirus scare has long passed, if owners try to claw money back. This could create an issue between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, who are in talks to extend the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires in 2022. Currently, there is no mechanism in the CBA that deals with the financial issues that arise from this kind of epidemic scare.

“There’s a lot of money at stake,” said a source.

One of the reasons few were willing to speak on the record on the issue was that none wanted to be perceived as putting money before public health.

In the words of one, “If we get to the point of cancelling games, the last thing on anyone’s mind will be HRR.”

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