Though it feels like it’s been quite a bit longer, the NHL declared a “pause” on its 2019-20 season on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the theoretical possibility of hitting “unpause” and resuming the regular season and playoffs (or just the latter) in some fashion at some point in the future.
In the time since, there has been little in the way of clarity on that timeline, while there have been two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in players, both on the Ottawa Senators (the identity of the players has remained confidential).
As we begin another week with no NHL hockey — a situation similar to what is transpiring in the overwhelming majority of other sports — let’s explore the various angles to the continuation of the pause.
Does the NHL have a timeline for when play could earliest resume?
Greg Wyshynski: The NHL remains on the timeline it established in a March 16 communication to the players, who were told to self-quarantine through March 27. The NHL hopes after that point to allow “the opening of club facilities to players in scheduled and coordinated small groups for voluntary training, and care of the players on the same basis as in the offseason.” It still hopes for “the potential of opening a training camp period roughly 45 days into the 60-day period covered by the CDC’s directive.”
But any plans by the NHL and its players are entirely contingent on federal and local restrictions on travel and social distancing. As we’ve seen, some regions are taking more stringent action than others. For example, the “stay at home” edict enacted by California’s governor last week meant residents were to stay at home “except for essential reasons like buying groceries or seeking medical care.” How would that affect the Sharks, Ducks and Kings players and staff attempting to use team facilities?
What have the players said?
Emily Kaplan: Not much, via the media. In the week following the suspension, NHL players and teams largely shied away from any interviews. The NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association are supposed to start facilitating interviews in the coming days, as the league understands the importance of staying relevant. The NHL initially told players to stay in their home cities, but it reversed course last week and told them they could self-isolate anywhere, which led some European players to book trips to their home countries.
We’ve seen a few players do public service announcements — appearing in videos on either their personal or team social media accounts — reminding fans to stay safe. Connor McDavid released a video, alongside his bernedoodle, Lenny. “Like a lot of you, just stuck inside, practicing my social distancing, trying to control this thing before it gets out of hand,” McDavid said. “What one person does affects the other, and we all need to make sure that we’re being safe and taking all of the steps needed to stop the spread of this thing.”
Meanwhile, the Bruins uploaded a video in which Brad Marchand revealed what his social distancing looks like: staying up late watching movies, painting and finding as many games as he can play in the house with his wife and kids. (He also has trimmed the hedges and “cleaned up every drawer and closet in the house.”)
We’ve also heard from Anze Kopitar and Anders Lee; had this cute video of Antoine Roussel rollerblading around his kitchen with his son; and seen Nicklas Backstrom try his driveway goalie chops. And if you check in on any player with an active Instagram account, he probably is doing that juggle-a-roll-of-toilet paper challenge:
Nous sommes tous ensemble devant cette adversité.
We’re all in this together. 👊
— Tomas Tatar (@TomasTatar90) March 20, 2020
Will there be a mini training camp when the NHL returns?
Kaplan: Yes. The NHL and NHLPA are meeting regularly, and this is something that they agreed is a necessity. Players haven’t had access to ice and, in most cases, the professional-grade gyms and trainers they have in the offseason, so it would be unfair to ask them to jump right back on the ice in game situations — let alone in a playoff scenario. That would be an injury risk.
What that training camp will look like depends on when the league restarts. If public authorities deem it safe, teams will open their training facilities and allow players to get back on the ice or in the gym even before something formal is announced. For now, players have been asked to remain in self-isolation until at least March 27.
Are players being tested?
Kaplan: NHL players are getting tested on a case-by-case basis. Those efforts are coordinated between the NHL, the NHLPA, the individual clubs and local health authorities, with input provided from infectious disease specialists. We haven’t seen full teams order tests for their players from private companies, like we’ve seen in the NBA, and according to sources, the NHL testing so far has focused mainly on those who are showing symptoms.
So far, there have been two confirmed COVID-19 cases in the NHL: both players are on the Senators, and they were part of the March 7-11 road trip that included games in San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles. There were 52 people as part of Ottawa’s traveling party, which includes staff, media, guests and flight crew.
“Of those on the trip, 44 have shown no symptoms, eight people have been tested and two positive results were received,” the Senators said in a statement, noting they were still awaiting results from tests that occurred later in the week. A Senators spokeswoman told ESPN that testing for the players has been coordinated through Ottawa’s public health system.
The Florida Panthers said a part-time arena worker tested positive; that employee last worked at an event at the arena on March 8, for a concert. The Vancouver franchise said a member of Canucks Sports & Entertainment also tested positive, though that person does not have a fan-facing role and isn’t in contact with players.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN that as of Sunday morning, there hadn’t been another positive test for a player.
What’s the latest on arena and part-time staff compensation?
Wyshynski: After the Boston Bruins‘ ownership finally released their plans on Saturday, every NHL team has now offered some promise of assistance for those game-night workers affected by the “pause” of the NHL season. But there’s a wide variance in how specific teams have gone about providing that aid, as well as when workers would get paid.
The Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres, for example, have both decided to compensate workers only when the NHL cancels regular-season games, which it has not yet done. As the Bruins’ statement read: “The Jacobs Family has established a $1.5 million fund for the Boston Bruins and TD Garden part-time gameday associates who will be financially burdened if the six remaining regular season Bruins games are not played.”
Is there a cutoff date when the league would just cancel the rest of the 2019-20 season?
Kaplan: If there is, the NHL hasn’t shared that date publicly. The NHL has made a stance, however, that it wants to do everything it can to have a complete and “relatively normal” 2020-21 season. Commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN’s Get Up! last week that he believed that under the current circumstances, the league can “go later than we’ve ever gone.”
“How late is a good question,” Bettman said. “What we want to make sure of is that we don’t do anything from this season that might impact next season and having the normalcy it is supposed to have. So the two factors are timing relative to how late we can go without impacting next season, and making sure that whatever we do competitively, if we are going to complete this current season, it has to have integrity, and it has to be respectful of the well-over-100-year history of the Stanley Cup. And that’s something we’re very focused on.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman discusses the league’s plans to conclude the regular season and when the Stanley Cup playoffs could begin.
Any word on what this all means for the NHL draft? How would the lottery work if the season is canceled?
Wyshynski: There are calls with both the board of governors and the NHL’s general managers this week, and one assumes this topic will come up. It isn’t just teams well outside the playoff picture that are curious. Consider the Arizona Coyotes, who are right now out of the postseason seedings and whose first-round pick in the Taylor Hall trade with New Jersey is top-three protected. Consider the Vancouver Canucks, who are out of the playoffs in points but could be in through points percentage and whose first-rounder belongs to Tampa Bay from the J.T. Miller trade. If the Canucks make the playoffs, the pick goes to the Bolts; if they miss, it defers to next season.
As for the draft itself, scheduled for Montreal on June 26 and 27, the NHL told ESPN on Sunday that it hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to postpone that event or modify it. Same goes for the NHL Awards, which were expected to be held earlier that week in Las Vegas.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on scouting could be considerable. The International Ice Hockey Federation’s cancellation of the world under-18 championships in Michigan took away a great “last impressions” showcase for draft prospects from around the world. Travel restrictions and the cancellations of seasons at all levels have further impacted scouting.
Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, told the league’s website that the final rankings for North American skaters and goalies is expected by mid-April and will be determined through teleconferencing. Goran Stubb, NHL director of European Scouting Services, will provide the ranking of the top international skaters and goalies.
Has any of this affected the Seattle expansion team’s timeline?
Wyshynski: Yes. The team, scheduled to debut in the 2021-22 season, sold many of its premium ticket plans starting last fall and has delayed payments on those plans until July. General seat selection was slated to begin in March, using a facility called the “Seattle Preview Center,” which would have allowed fans to choose their seats on a large model of the arena. Now the team might instead use a virtual space for those ticket buyers.
Finally, the thing you’re probably most curious about: The team’s name and logos could be revealed while fans are social distancing or self-quarantining.
“In theory, coronavirus will not delay our name and will not affect it, but we’re in unprecedented times. So I can’t say that as soon as the legal process is wrapped up that we’ll go with the name. We’re working as hard as we can. We know how badly our fans want it,” said Katie Townsend, vice president of corporate communications at NHL Seattle.
What happens to the awards if the rest of the season is canceled?
Wyshynski: As of now, the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association voting on the awards has been paused along with the regular season. One assumes the league treats this season’s awards like they would in a lockout-shortened season, when they are still handed out even after an incomplete campaign.
Absent an awards event, the NHL would probably announce the winner of each one via some form of media release. The intrigue — selfishly, for your authors — is whether the league would still have the PHWA, the Professional Hockey Broadcasters Association (which votes on the Jack Adams Award) and the NHL’s general managers (who vote on the Vezina Trophy) choose the award winners this season; or, due to the circumstances and the shifted timeline, would the NHL simply select the award winners via its hockey operations department? Let’s hope, for the sake of precedent, it’s not the latter scenario.
Are those who purchased tickets getting refunds?
Wyshynski: No. It’s like the end of a horse race, before the results are official: “Please hold all tickets.”
Most NHL teams are following the league’s “season pause” pronouncement and are not offering refunds until the games are officially cancelled. The Senators, for example, told their fans that “all tickets purchased for postponed games remain valid and will provide entry to the same game on the rescheduled date.” And if you can’t make the date of a postponed game? “Decisions on transferring tickets between games will be made once the schedule has been confirmed by the NHL,” the team said.
The Philadelphia Flyers have told fans that “tickets for canceled games or games played with no fans present” will be eligible for “credits and/or refunds” from the team.
This goes for ticket purchasers from third parties, as well. StubHub is not issuing any refunds for tickets unless the game is formally cancelled. When it is, ticket buyers have the option of a refund of the original order amount via the original payment method or a “StubHub coupon worth 120% of your original order” that can be applied to future purchases.
NHL teams also are taking action for season-ticket holders, in particular for next season’s payments. The Nashville Predators, for example, have delayed automatic payments that were scheduled for April 1. The Chicago Blackhawks are pausing all renewal plan payments and have extended the payment deadline to renew season tickets for 2020-21 for an indefinite period.
What are teams doing to keep fans interested?
Kaplan: The NHL joined other pro leagues in temporarily offering content on their streaming service for free. Replays of all 2019-20 games as well as select classic games are free through April 30 on NHL.tv.
Individual teams also are looking for ways to get creative. On Thursday, we got a slate of five virtual games on EA SPORTS NHL 20, with several of the actual NHL clubs live-tweeting and commentating through it. The Devils even conducted an interview with the real Cory Schneider afterward, in which he analyzed his virtual self’s 98-save performance.
The Blackhawks summoned fan-favorite Marian Hossa to reflect on a 2010 playoff game before they aired it on TV. The Washington Capitals‘ broadcast partner, NBC Sports Washington, plans to air video game simulations of the Caps’ (and NBA Wizards’) remaining regular-season games. The Golden Knights launched a virtual book club.