As NHL announces ‘pause’ on 2019-20 season, next steps remain unclear

HC analyst Elliotte Friedman joins the Hockey Central crew to speculate about the many questions and answers we all wait for with the NHL’s upcoming announcement of how they will handle the rest of the 2019-20 season.

So utterly unprecedented are the times we find ourselves in, so beyond the reality many of us could have imagined days or even hours ago, that when the NHL made the landmark decision to pause its season Thursday it wound up being no surprise at all.

In fact, it felt like the only path forward with the spread of coronavirus pandemic now taking hold in North America, just as it has previously in parts of Europe and Asia.

The announcement from the NHL came about 16 hours after the NBA suspended its own season for a minimum of 30 days. It came after the cancellation of playoffs in seven European hockey leagues, and world championships in women’s hockey and figure skating, and the prestigious Indian Wells tennis tournament, among numerous events that see a large number of people gather to be entertained.

Somewhere in that avalanche of bad news it became painfully clear the NHL would be left with no choice but to take its own hiatus less than four weeks from the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

And that’s exactly what happened following a 1 p.m. ET conference call with the league’s board of governors. There was no formal vote on the call, just a discussion about next steps.

It’s all pretty fluid.

Players were encouraged to distance themselves from each other while awaiting further word. They’ve been told not to travel, meet or practice.

“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,” the NHL said in a statement. “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.”

It’s an admirable goal, but it’s far from a certainty.

This issue is bigger than any sporting concern, or any business interest, and where we go from here is unclear.

There is still some hope that even a protracted playoffs can be salvaged even if it means playing games into the summer. That’s probably the best-case scenario and it’s entirely dependent on the spread of COVID-19.

A paused season will unleash some negative economic impacts — including increased escrow payments and a lower salary cap in 2020-21 — and the March 23 and April 4 paycheques still due to players probably aren’t coming now.

However, none of those things trump public safety in the face of a global pandemic.

“The decision to temporarily suspend play due to the COVID-19 pandemic is an appropriate course of action at this time,” the NHL Players’ Association said in a statement. “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.”

The day where the sports world fell quiet began with many NHLers reporting to the rink for their usual game-day routines before quickly being sent home. That included members of the Toronto Maple Leafs, some of whom told security personnel “see you in a couple weeks” on their way out of Scotiabank Arena.

At least one road team began making travel plans home in the afternoon before its Thursday evening game was officially cancelled.

The league was stopped with 1,082 of 1,271 regular-season games in the books — slightly more than 85 per cent of the schedule.

Boston sat on top of the standings, Leon Draisaitl at the top of the scoring chart and four Canadian-based teams officially held playoff positions for a campaign that may never be completed.

The only time that’s previously happened after a season started was 1918-19, when the Stanley Cup between Montreal and Seattle was cancelled after five games because of a Spanish flu breakout.

The 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout.

There aren’t yet any confirmed coronavirus cases among NHL players or team staff — unlike in the NBA, where Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz have each turned up positive tests — but in making Thursday’s announcement the league acknowledged that some are likely to emerge given the overlap between the NHL and NBA, and the spread of the virus across the general population.

That’s ultimately why they were forced to shut down immediately.

Even the potential of playing in front of empty arenas — just as Pittsburgh and Columbus were initially scheduled to do Thursday — didn’t amount to a strong enough safeguard.

Thursday was a strange, sad day but one truth couldn’t be ignored: Everyone’s health is now at risk and some things are more important than hockey.

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