As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread around the world, sports teams and leagues are beginning to be impacted.
In Italy, for instance, the government mandated that all sporting events in the country would have to take place without fans present for at least the next month. More than 100 people have died from the virus in that country so far, with over 3,000 reported cases.
In other European countries, the response level hasn’t quite gotten to that point yet, though this is still a developing story. English soccer club Chelsea released a statement on Friday saying their games would go on as normal, though they had “increased our cleaning routines across all of our facilities and strengthened hygiene and sanitisation in public areas.”
The hockey world, of course, is also beginning to feel the effect of the outbreak. Some tournaments have been cancelled, games postponed, and the potential for others to be cancelled or played in front of empty arenas is growing.
At the recent NHL GM Meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, how the league was approaching the matter was a topic of great interest.
“We’re staying on top of it, which is what you have to do,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We’re aware of all the possible alternatives and we may have to deal with any of those alternatives if something happens we have to react to. We’re aware of what’s happening around the world and understand this can evolve and change. As we sit here today, I don’t think people should get too far ahead of themselves… let’s see how it all evolves.”
At that gathering, we learned the league office had barred employees from all travel outside of North America for business purposes. Individually, employees could still travel for personal reasons, but would be subject to a two-week quarantine period where they would have to stay out of the office upon returning.
The league has not yet mandated a similar ban for its 31 member clubs and is leaving those decisions to each organization to make on their own for now.
“The second part is in Europe, relating to our scouting,” Bettman said. “Everyone has staffs that are going over there and chasing players and some tournaments and leagues that have been affected. We spent a lot of time on that. From the NHL standpoint, it’s wait, watch and stay current with what is happening. You’ve got to take leadership for your staff and make sure you’re not putting them in tough situations. But right now it’s business as usual until you find out otherwise.”
As this story continues to evolve, here is a look at how the hockey world has been impacted by the COVID-19 spread so far.
On Thursday, Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department announced six new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of positive tests up to 20 in the region. As part of a package of updated recommendations, the department also advised “postponing or cancelling mass gatherings and large community events where large numbers of people are within arm’s length of one another.”
So far, these remain recommendations and are not requirements.
The San Jose Sharks reside in Santa Clara County and played a home game Thursday night against the Minnesota Wild. Following this advisory, the team had to send out an update to say their game against the Wild would go on as scheduled.
“SAP Center undergoes a rigorous cleaning procedure after each and every event, with particular attention paid to high-traffic, high public-contact areas. Many areas will receive additional, enhanced measures throughout the course of events for the foreseeable future,” the team said in a release.
“Guests attending tonight’s game and future SAP Center events are strongly encouraged to follow the health department’s suggestion, which recommends that “persons at higher risk avoid mass gatherings such as parades, sporting events, and concerts where large numbers of people are within arm’s length of one another.”
The Sharks have two more home games this weekend, Saturday against Ottawa and Sunday against Colorado, before leaving for a road trip. The team said on Friday that both of those games would go on as normal.
On a larger scale, there have been two deaths related to coronavirus in the state of California. On Wednesday, governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to help prepare for and contain the spread of the virus.
There has been no impact yet on the Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks games beyond increased awareness.
EXPANSION SEATTLE FEELING AN EFFECT
So far, Washington state is dealing with the most serious outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, with 39 infections and 10 deaths associated to it in King and Snohomish counties in Seattle, according to the Department of Health. Earlier this week, state and county officials urged residents to consider working from home and avoiding large public gatherings.
The NHL expansion franchise in Seattle, due to begin playing in the 2021-22 season, had some of its events impacted. The organization was expecting to release season-ticket pricing this week and to begin scheduling appointments for a seat selection process, but has postponed both for the rest of this week, and possibly next, according to the Seattle Times.
“We’re watching how the situation develops before we start the general seat selection process,” the team’s vice-president, Katie Townsend, told the Times. “We want this to be the best possible experience for our fans where they have the chance to come to our Preview Center and select their seats in person. We view this as a milestone moment for the organization and we’re appreciative of our fans’ patience.”
TOURNAMENTS THAT ARE CANCELLED, GAMES THAT ARE POSTPONED IN EUROPE
On Monday, the IIHF announced the cancellation of the following tournaments due to a recommendation from the governing body’s medical committee:
• The Men’s U-18 World Championship Division II Group A, which was to run March 22-28 in Tallinn, Estonia
• The Men’s U-18 World Championship Division II Group B, which was to run March 23-29 in Sofia, Bulgaria
• The Men’s U-18 World Championship Division III Group A, which was to run March 16-22 in Istanbul, Turkey
• The Men’s U-18 World Championship Division III Group B, which was to run March 29-April 4 in Kockelscheuer, Luxembourg
• The Women’s World Championship Division I Group B, which was to run March 28-April 3 in Katowice, Poland
• And the Women’s World Championship Division II Group A, which was to run March 29-April 3 in Jaca, Spain
There are more international events coming up soon that have not yet been cancelled, but are worth keeping an eye on. The U-18 World Championship, an important tournament in the scouting world ahead of the NHL Draft, is scheduled to run April 16-26 in Plymouth and Ann Arbor, Michigan. According to The Athletic’s Craig Custance, USA Hockey has been made aware that it “might be in jeopardy of being cancelled.”
Perhaps the biggest upcoming international event — and one that would involve some NHL players — is the Men’s World Championship, which is scheduled to be played May 8-24 in Lausanne and Zurich, Switzerland. Given there is still two months before that tournament begins, there is less urgency to make a final call right now.
Speaking to Swiss Hockey News, IIHF president Rene Fasel said they were analyzing the situation, but would likely wait until at least March 15 before saying any more about it. However, he did not reveal a date that they would need to make a final decision by on whether or not to cancel the event.
If political decisions are made that would allow the World Championships to be played, but only behind closed doors without crowds present, Fasel said “it will not come to a World Championship with ghost games, that makes no sense at all from my point of view.”
The top division of the IIHF Women’s World Championship, which is to be hosted in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia from March 31 to April 10, has not been cancelled.
Further in Switzerland, the government in that country temporarily banned events that would involve more than 1,000 people as of Feb. 28, forcing a stretch of games in the National and the second-tier league that had to be played in empty arenas.
The playoffs for the top-tier National League were scheduled to begin March 7, but the government ban was to run through March 15. As a result, all post-season games have been postponed until March 17. On Thursday, it was announced the final weekend of games at the U20-Elit and U17-Elit levels were cancelled.
WHAT COMES NEXT
The best answer is simply: no one knows. The NHL, the IIHF and all hockey bodies are working with health organizations to adapt to this situation as it develops.
Until now, there have only been advisories in North America in regards to large-attendance events. But, ultimately, the political decisions made by local or national governments could have the most substantial influence on what happens next in terms of scheduling and impacts on attendance.
“Last night (in San Jose) it was a recommendation and that situation, if you’re properly prepared, I guess you have choices,” Elliotte Friedman told Sportsnet 590 The FAN’s Lead Off. “But what if it’s no longer a recommendation? What if it’s you can’t play, or you can’t have fans there? I don’t think anybody knows the answer.”