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Hockey

As leagues and teams begin to shut door on fans because of coronavirus, will NHL follow?

The Sharks will play their three remaining home games in March without fans following a local ban put in place on large gatherings of people in response to the spread of the new coronavirus.
The Sharks will play their three remaining home games in March without fans following a local ban put in place on large gatherings of people in response to the spread of the new coronavirus.
(John Hefti / Associated Press)

During his illustrious NHL career, Ducks forward David Backes has played a full season’s worth of playoff games. Eighty-two times, he’s felt the buzz of a postseason atmosphere, the unmistakable mystique that comes with chasing the Stanley Cup.

This year, he and others are hoping that hallowed tradition isn’t in doubt.

As the coronavirus outbreak worsened in the past week, sporting events across the country have started to shutter their doors to the general public. Several local and state governments have issued mandates to do so. Other professional and college teams (including USC and UCLA) have done so voluntarily.

On Wednesday afternoon, the NCAA made the decision to conduct its upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance.

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Later in the day, the NBA suspended its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19 coronavirus.

In a statement issued after the NBA announcement, the NHL said: “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 NHL is continuing to consult with medical experts and is evaluating the options. We expect to have a further update tomorrow.”

What would it be like for NHL players to play regular-season and postseason games behind closed doors?

“From a playoff standpoint, your home crowd just gives you energy in those times when you’re either getting outplayed or you’re outplaying somebody,” Backes said Tuesday night. “They’re either the momentum-changer for your team or they’re the dagger that sinks the other team and makes it feel like they’re playing against 20,000 people that night.”

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As recently as a week ago, such a step didn’t seem to be getting serious consideration.

But on Wednesday , the Columbus Blue Jackets announced their upcoming home games, starting on Thursday, will be closed to the general public on an order from Ohio’s governor banning large public gatherings.

The San Jose Sharks said three upcoming home games will also be played without fans after Santa Clara County (in which the team’s arena is located) issued similar restrictions.

Many around the sport can’t imagine what empty-stadium games might look like.

“Our players and our staff would be devastated to play a game like that,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said after his team’s Tuesday home game, understanding of the potential health risks but still saddened by the thought.

“Even on the road, if we run into it on the road, even though those are not friendly confines, these games are about the fans. They’re the ones that really get the place buzzing. And they make it fun to play. … The game is about the fans and to not have them there would just be an absolutely terrible thing if it does happen.”

A look at how sports leagues, including the NFL, MLB, MLS, NBA and NHL, are responding to the coronavirus outbreak.
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The Southland’s two NHL franchises, who are each scheduled to play home games Wednesday night, are proceeding as planned for now. Both the Kings and Ducks released statements Wednesday afternoon saying they are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on providing preventive measures for fans in attendance at their games and will be monitoring advice from government agencies as they make future decisions.

If the COVID-19 outbreak continues, however, the NHL might have to make tough decisions of its own, whether that be a leaguewide closed-doors policy or, as TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported as a current possibility, pushing back the league schedule entirely.

In the meantime, players and coaches around the sport have had to grapple with the uncertainty.

“I’d be lying if it wasn’t a lot,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said Wednesday when asked how much thought he has given the coronavirus outbreak.

“I think of it at home, I have older parents living in [Canada], I have two boys in separate colleges … and then there is our family here that we’re obviously concerned about, the community we live in. Obviously, L.A. is a big city and we do care about the people here too. We know we are in the mix as far as events people go to attend. We’ve thought about it a lot. We’ve discussed it a lot. But we’ve maintained our focus hockeywise as well.”

Columbus became the first NHL team to say it will play in an empty arena, announcing on Wednesday that it will abide by a mandate from the state of Ohio.

“It’s a weird time,” said Kings defenseman Matt Roy. “We met with our team doctor yesterday and got some tips and preventive measures. But it’s such a big thing in certain parts of the world, and now that it’s coming here, it’s slow right now but you can feel it getting bigger.”

Indeed, it was only four days ago that Kings goalie Cal Petersen walked into his postgame news conference laughing at the black surgical gloves covering his hands.

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“Better safe than sorry,” he said, making light of the extra precautions.

Within the week, the COVID-19 outbreak has reached more dire levels, leaving those in the hockey world and beyond to wonder if empty stadiums — or something even more severe — could be coming next.

“If it gets to that point, and we’re told we need to do that, [it means] the experts have made decisions,” McLellan said. “We abide by it and we do it. In life, you don’t always get to choose your path. You deal with it as it comes. And we will play the game.”

Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this story.


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