BROSSARD, Que. — “I think it’s a good thing,” said Montreal Canadiens forward Joel Armia.
The Pori, Finland native certainly wasn’t suggesting that several European leagues shutting down the remainder of the 2019-20 season and cancelling all playoff games was good.
“It obviously sucks,” he said.
But Armia gave an honest answer to a question most people are asking in the wake of the COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, one about whether or not NHL players are on board with even the most extreme measures being taken to prevent the rapid spread of the virus.
The reality in Europe is one players in North America could be dealing with in short order. So to have a player say that they think “it’s a good thing” regarding preventative measures such as cancelling games is an important development.
We know a fair deal of them are on board with measures that have already been taken across the four active major North American Sports leagues — to eliminate dressing room access for the media until further notice — and some of them are starting to wrap their heads around playing games without fans in attendance.
“I think the game in San Jose (on Mar. 19) could be played without fans, and little things like that could happen and that would be bizarre,” Phillip Danault said from a podium that kept him, Armia and a few other players more than 10 feet away from reporters on Wednesday.
As for the prospect of games being canceled, the 27-year-old Victoriaville, Que., native made it clear it wasn’t a possibility he wants to contemplate for the time being.
“I’d rather not think too far ahead on the idea of cancelling games or the season,” Danault said.
No one wants to see it happen. Not Armia, not Danault, and certainly not any of the Canadiens, who won’t be playing games beyond Apr. 4.
But it’s a particularly troubling thought for teams destined for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to consider.
Speaking with one league executive who works for a team that’s well in position to participate in this year’s playoffs, he said there’s growing concern around the NHL that games could be in jeopardy and that the Cup might not be awarded for the first time (outside of the 2004-05 lockout year) since Spanish Influenza wiped out remaining games of the 1919 playoffs.
“Thankfully we’re not there yet,” said the executive. “But it’s impossible to say we might not get there. It becomes a liability issue we can’t ignore. Insurance will play a strong hand in what happens regarding the potential for cancelling games, and there are many other implications for us to be concerned about as a business — in addition to the fallout of losing gate revenue from fans potentially not being in attendance if we do continue with games.”
There’s obviously financial concerns for players to consider, as well.
Their share of revenue — just like that of the owners — is tied to overall league revenue, and they’re expected to help mitigate losses through escrow, which could obviously climb in the event of gate revenues dipping or games being canceled.
And then, as the executive brought up, there’s little things like individual performance bonuses tied to games played, points, goals, etc., that could be affected by these circumstances.
“I mean that’s something that obviously there’s no control that we have,” said Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry when he was asked about whether or not he and his teammates were concerned about the financial implications of playing in empty stadiums or games being canceled. “It’s obvious that, I think, everyone’s health is the most important thing, and if it comes down to playing with empty buildings or cancelling games, that’s where I think it’s going to be. It’s not something we’re thinking about right now, but it’ll be a discussion between the PA and the league and all the teams on that aspect.”
Petry said the Canadiens are just trying to go about their business like everyone else working in an office setting would be.
“Until we’re told otherwise, that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “But I don’t think it consumes us to the point where we can’t think about our jobs on the ice.”
As for their life partners — who are well aware of the particular risks players are exposing themselves to with frequent travel and by being in an environment where they’re sweating and in close contact with each other both on and off the ice — it’s not as simple.
“For my part, (my wife) is really scared from that,” said Danault. “She wants me to wipe my hands a lot over there. We just got a little baby, too, so I don’t want to bring back home that virus. So I definitely need to be careful and wash my hands a lot.”
The Canadiens, like all other teams, are managing their team like they would when all other strands of the flu are circulating.
“There’s been talk internally, but I think the league has taken charge of everything that has to happen regarding meeting media and everything else,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Wednesday. “And even the meet-and-greets and all that stuff have been shut down. We’re just following the league’s advice on that kind of stuff. That’s basically it.
“The doctors are always going to do their own thing and around the dressing room there’s always (hand sanitizer) around and all over the place and guys are really good at it. I see them washing their hands all the time when they go by and if I go by one every five minutes I’m spraying my hands. It’s become a habit for all of us, so we’re taking precautions necessary to try and avoid that.”
Meanwhile, the Canadiens made the following announcement on Wednesday: “At this time, we have asked our scouts to stop flying, stay in their own countries and/or avoid travelling to countries listed as at risk by the World Health Organization. We are re-evaluating the situation on a daily basis.”