The National Hockey League season is dangling by a thread after the rapid spread of coronavirus forced the NBA to suspend play indefinitely Wednesday.
On an unprecedented night where five games continued on amid growing belief that the NHL will ultimately be forced to follow suit, the league indicated that it needed more time — to consult with those in the medical field, while also making plans to hold a call with team representatives Thursday morning.
The NBA halted its season immediately after discovering Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL doesn’t yet have a confirmed case, but there is a massive overlap between the two leagues and the virus is highly communicable.
“The National Hockey League is aware of the NBA’s decision tonight to indefinitely suspend its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus,” the league said in a release. “The NHL is continuing to consult with medical experts and is evaluating the options. We expect to have a further update (on Thursday).”
It would be of little surprise if they wound up suspending their own season. How can they reasonably play on with the virus spreading quickly in North America?
Consider where Gobert has been in the last week alone: He faced the Toronto Raptors, who share a home with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and played road games at Little Caesars Arena (Pistons/Red Wings), TD Garden (Celtics/Bruins) and Madison Square Garden (Knicks/Rangers).
Even if the NHL would prefer to play games in empty arenas, which would limit the exposure to the general public, it may not be able to guarantee that players and team staff are kept safe under those conditions.
The NHL Players’ Association has been in constant communication with the league office over the last week and is canvassing its executive committee in the wake of the NBA shutdown.
“We are in continuous contact with the NHL regarding the coronavirus and the recent announcement by the NBA,” the NHLPA said in a statement on Wednesday night. “These discussions will continue tomorrow morning, and we will consult with players before commenting further.”
There are 189 games and a little more than three weeks remaining in the NHL’s regular season. The league has put a number of contingency plans in place, including asking teams for available building dates in April should the schedule need to be pushed back.
There’s been some talk of taking a three-week hiatus, according to sources, but no one can say for sure if the virus might be brought under control that quickly.
At this point, there has to be genuine concern about the NHL’s ability to crown a Stanley Cup champion for the 2019-20 season. Several hockey leagues in Europe have already scrapped their playoffs and COVID-19 might force similar decisions here in North America.
The Stanley Cup has only seen two seasons where it wasn’t awarded: In 2004-05, because of a year-long lockout, and 1918-19, because of the Spanish flu.