The National Hockey League is going on hiatus, suspending its 2019-20 season to do its part to combat the deadly spread of coronavirus.
The league – which has completed 85 per cent of its regular-season schedule – hopes to be able return to action and hold the Stanley Cup playoffs “as soon as it is appropriate and prudent,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a news release.
Just how or when remains unclear, given the fluidity of the situation regarding the coronavirus that has infected citizens around the world.
The announcement came just hours before the Toronto Maple Leafs were set to host the Nashville Predators, and interrupts the season just weeks before the playoffs were set to begin.
The Maple Leafs fully supported the league’s decision.
“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, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are in full support of the decision reached today by the NHL, its member clubs and players,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement.
“Like you, we have many questions about what’s to come in the future. We will continue to monitor this situation and will remain in contact with Toronto Public Health, Public Health Agency of Canada and the National Hockey League. We will provide relevant team updates as they become available.”
The word the NHL used was “pause” as it explained its reasoning to follow the lead of the NBA and other leagues in shutting down for now.
As things stand, the NHL has completed 85 per cent of its schedule: 1,082 of 1,271 regular-season games. That leaves 189 games on the schedule.
“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,” Bettman said in a release.
“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.”
All teams had cancelled practises and morning skates across the league on Thursday as Bettman conferred with owners and the NHL Players’ Association about next steps.
Medical experts from around the world were encouraging local, provincial and federal governments to ban or discourage mass gatherings as means to combat the virus.
“The decision to temporarily suspend play due to the COVID-19 pandemic is an appropriate course of action at this time,” the NHLPA said in a release. “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.”
This is uncharted territory for the sports world at large and the NHL in particular.
There are some bracing for the season to be cancelled altogether at a later date. That could well mean that no Stanley Cup will be awarded, that the Boston Bruins could reign as Presidents’ Trophy champions for leading the league in points at the time of the shut down.
The league has suspended play before: three times for a lockout (1994-95, 2004-05, 2012-13), which shortened two seasons and cancelled one altogether, and once for a strike (1992), which postponed 30 games.
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No Stanley Cup was awarded in 2005 after the season-long lockout, nor was it awarded in 1919 due to the Spanish Flu, back when the NHL champion played the Pacific Coast League champion for the trophy.
The league will have many issues to deal with, like if and how players, staff and arena personnel get paid.
The league revenue will be adversely affected and whether the sport rebounds will have an effect on hockey-related revenue and the salary cap. Teams like the Maple Leafs – which were counting on a higher cap next year – could face a squeeze even with the players they have under salary already.
The league is also in on-going talks with the NHL Players’ Association for an extension on its current collective bargaining agreement, set to expire in 2022. While talks have been going well, with things like international hockey being sticking points, the effect of the virus brings could bring to the table ideas and positions that had not been considered before.