On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the spread of Coronavirus, or COVID-19, a pandemic. The disease, a virus in the same family as the SARS outbreak of 2002 and 2003, has spread around the globe. There are over 118,000 confirmed cases as of this writing, with over 4,000 confirmed Coronavirus-related fatalities.
COVID-19 spreads quickly and is highly contagious, which has caused many national, state, and local governments to cancel or restrict large group gatherings. Hockey games are no exception, as Santa Clara County proved with the San Jose Sharks earlier this week.
In this article, we’ll take a look at many of the restrictions and cancellations we know about so far, some of the ramifications for the game at large, the NHL’s response, and potential decisions in the future. This situation is evolving every day, so we invite you to stay tuned to THW for all your hockey-related COVID-19 news.
Europe Cancelling Seasons
Outside of China, Europe may be the area hit hardest by COVID-19. It is the only continent with at least one diagnosed case in every country. Understandably, European hockey leagues are taking every precaution necessary to limit the spread of Coronavirus, and many of their leagues have cancelled or substantially altered the remainder of their seasons.
Germany and Austria led the way by cancelling the remainder of their league’s seasons. They announced the cancellation of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) and the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL) on Mar. 10. Norway, Poland, and Slovakia followed suit on Mar. 11, cancelling the remainder of their seasons as well.
Other leagues have avoided termination while still altering their plans. The Czech Extraliga will play its games in empty venues, with no fans in attendance. And Denmark, France, and Switzerland have postponed or suspended their playoffs until a future date.
As of now, Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) expects to go forward without alteration. Finland’s season is approaching its conclusion and no changes have been made so far, which is also true of Sweden and Great Britain. But in the moment-by-moment nature of this pandemic, any of those leagues could change their minds at any time.
Cancellations in North America
European leagues are not the only hockey competitions affected by this virus, though. The International Ice Hockey Foundation (IIHF) announced the cancellation of the Women’s World Ice Hockey Championship, which was set for later this month in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia. The IIHF expects that Nova Scotia will now host the tournament in 2021 instead.
The Sharks announced on Wednesday that they would play their next three home games in an empty arena. Harvard University is reportedly forfeiting the remainder of its season due to concerns over the virus. Most recently, the Columbus Blue Jackets have restricted attendance at their games.
The NHL’s Preparations
The NHL is closely monitoring the situation as a league and taking necessary precautions as they arise. They joined with the other major American sports leagues in closing clubhouses and locker rooms to limit the risk to players. The league also held a conference call earlier this week with team presidents to discuss the outbreak and its potential effect on the season.
With the NHL’s postseason scheduled to begin in about a month, it is obviously a difficult time to make these decisions. The NHL seems more inclined to follow the lead of state and local governments than to take initial action themselves, which allows them to diffuse the blame with potentially unhappy fans.
Social media was set ablaze Wednesday night with the news that the NBA season would be suspended. The NCAA has also announced that the Men’s basketball tournament, March Madness, will be held in empty venues. The NHL has not yet taken such drastic action, but a landmark decision could potentially come at any time.
Cancellations Seem Likely
While there’s no official word at this point, it seems more and more likely that the NHL will be forced to majorly alter its strategy for the remainder of the season at the League level. With the NCAA and NBA’s announcements, as well as Major League Soccer’s (MLS) decision to cancel games, the pressure will increase on leagues like Major League Baseball (MLB) and the NHL to take drastic measures.
If and when that happens, we will have updates for you here at THW. At this time, everyone’s primary concern should be health, safety, and limiting the spread of this virus as quickly as possible.