NHL players reflect on NBA shutdown as waiting game with season starts

Blake Wheeler picked up a goal and an assist as the Winnipeg Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-2.

EDMONTON — As the pregame supper wrapped up, a press room full of monitors usually reserved for National Hockey League games had one TV that was airing one of the stranger basketball situations we’ve seen. It looked like a trainer running out on the court, right before tip-off, telling the referee something.

Something serious.

Upstairs, the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers had played about 10 minutes of hockey at Rogers Place when it was announced that the reason they had cancelled that NBA game at the last second was because Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert had reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. Before the first period was over, the National Basketball Association had suspended its season.

And before an entire hour had passed, we realized it: This game between the Oilers and the Jets was very likely the last NHL game played on Canadian soil — or anywhere else — for an unknown amount of time.

“I was talking to Leon (Draisaitl) before the second period,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, “And he asked me if I had heard about the NBA? And the refs were talking about it too. It’s an usual kind of night overall. The way things have unfolded the last few days, everything pretty much leading up to the game was talking about this.”

Usually, when the NHL decides it is time to stop playing scheduled games — as we fully expect the league to announce on Thursday morning — it is because of labour unrest. Owners’ greed. Players’ entitlement. Or a mixture of each, depending on where you stand.

But those stoppages plodded towards us like a tanker in the distance, growing just a little bigger each morning as we awoke and looked out on the hockey horizon. We all just assumed they would stop short of shore, until the times they did not.

But this? The coronavirus came on faster and with far less predictability.

One minute they’re calling off a soccer game in Italy, the next they’re playing the NCAA tournament in ghost gyms. And the next, the NBA — which shares 11 rinks with NHL teams — is calling it a day.

“I was talking to (Jets winger) Andrew Copp before the game,” said Wheeler. “Saying it’s going to be wild looking at our phones after the game. We barely got the puck dropped and the dominoes were already falling. It’s a crazy time right now.

“The NBA was kind of a shock. What it was going to take was a player getting sick. And then from there, there is really no choice. It just seems like it’s a waiting game and you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The various scenarios are relatively clear — and we’d bet the house that Thursday’s NHL announcement will mirror the NBA’s decree of a hiatus of undetermined length. After that, whether the NHL starts up again in two weeks, begins some truncated playoffs a month from now, or doesn’t complete the 2019-20 season at all…

Who can say they have a clue of what awaits us, more than a century after the Spanish flu costs the league it’s 1918 post-season?

Dave Tippett has spent a lifetime in the game. He barely knew what to say after Wednesday’s game.

“There is a feeling of bewilderment,” Tippett said. “You understand that this is a world health crisis, but we have never gone through anything like this and there has been nothing that has affected the game like this. You understand when you are going through lockouts and things like that, that there is a business part of the game. But this is a health part of the game, a life part of the game. It affects everybody, not just sports. It is a turbulent time in the world and we will just have to deal with it as it comes.”

The players and coaches are millionaires. The rest of us will find things other than NHL hockey to occupy our evenings.

It’s the people who work at the buildings across the league — Rogers Place has 300 full-time employees and as many as 1,600 part-timers — who will truly do without, if this expected stoppage is extended into the summer.

Let’s hope they’re playing NHL hockey again soon. Because that will mean our world is back to normal.

“I want it undistracted with fans in the building,” said Maurice. “We may not be able to get all of that, but you want a healthy, positive outcome for everyone. Short of that, we want everyone safe. But I’d like to go into games feeling that hockey is the most important thing in your day that day.”

By the way. The Jets won 4-2.

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