Spurred by the NBA’s announcement that it had suspended play soon after a player tested positive for the coronavirus, the NHL drastically changed its own course from planning to stage games in empty arenas to indefinitely pausing its own season Thursday.
The NBA’s move, made late Wednesday, created a sense of urgency when the NHL convened its board of governors via conference call Thursday. The board voted to follow the lead of the NBA, many of whose teams share buildings with NHL teams. “Once a player was diagnosed with it, I think it kind of moves everything forward a lot quicker,” Kings President Luc Robitaille said in a conference call Thursday with reporters.
The NHL hopes to resume its season, according to a statement from Commissioner Gary Bettman, but it’s unclear whether regular-season games would be made up or if the playoffs would begin immediately, if playoff berths would be based on teams’ positions after Wednesday’s games or through some kind of play-in tournament that would allow teams currently close to playoff spots to earn their way in.
It’s also unclear whether players will be permitted to practice in their respective teams’ facilities, a question Robitaille said he expects to be resolved by the league within 24 hours. He also said that unlike during previous work stoppages, when teams were prohibited from speaking to players, teams are allowed to communicate with players.
“We think it’s very important that everyone gets as much information as possible,” he said. “It’s not at all the way it was in the past because this is one thing where we need to take care of each other and we need to make sure the health of everyone is the No. 1 priority.”
The NHL’s statement read: “In light of ongoing developments resulting from the coronavirus, and after consulting with medical experts and convening a conference call of the Board of Governors, the National Hockey League is announcing today that it will pause the 2019-20 season beginning with tonight’s games.
“The NHL has been attempting to follow the mandates of health experts and local authorities, while preparing for any possible developments without taking premature or unnecessary measures. However, following [Wednesday] night’s news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus — and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point — it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time.
“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. 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. Until then, we thank NHL fans for your patience and hope you stay healthy.”
The American Hockey League, the primarily development league for NHL teams, also announced it had halted play. So did the three major junior leagues in Canada. Robitaille said the Kings’ scouts had finished most of their work in preparation for the June entry draft and that the organization’s priority is to be sure everyone is safe before formulating plans to restart hockey planning. “We’re all in the unknown,” he said.
The NHL Players’ Assn. called the NHL’s decision “an appropriate course of action at this time.” It added, “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.”
Robitaille also said the Kings have not discussed testing players or staffers for COVID-19. “We’re kind of on a hold pattern. As of now the season is on hold. The communication to our players [has been] ‘Hey, to a certain degree quarantine yourself, limit your traveling, take care of your families,’” he said. “But it is kind of what it is now, and follow what the guidelines are that we’re being given, whether it’s by the government that it’s been passed on from AEG to our team.”
Kelly Cheeseman, chief operating officer of AEG — the parent company of the Kings — said the refund process is being disseminated to season ticket holders, groups and individual ticket holders. “The change from playing in empty buildings to a pause in the season is completely different as it relates to that, so we’re still adjusting some of those things and circumstances,” he said.
Cheeseman declined to say how much money the Kings would lose per game. “I think it’s fair to say not only for our business but any businesses that are impacted by this, that it’s a seismic impact,” he said.
That impact would undoubtedly be felt by ushers, vendors, ticket-takers and other arena employees, as well as employees in restaurants and bars near arenas and stadiums.
AEG is poised to make some kind of accommodation for arena employees, Cheeseman indicated. “I can tell you that conversation is happening not only locally but I think across the nation at this point,” he said.
Honda Center has postponed all events through March 31. Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli — who also manage the arena — have told staff members who were scheduled to work March events that they will be paid.
Ducks coach Dallas Eakins, asked on Wednesday about the likelihood that the season will be halted, gave a perspective that looked beyond hockey. “I have great trust in our leadership. I have great trust in our league and in our health professionals and whatever they’re going to direct us to do, then we’ll do it. It’s very simple,” he said.
“I’m just a big believer right now in everything that’s going on and it’s everything to do with not so much the team but our community. Obviously there’s a breakout of the virus and I think we need a massive breakout of kindness. I think we need a massive breakout of alertness. I think we need a massive breakout of awareness of what we need to do and to take these things very, very seriously.
“When things like this go on, we talk about teams coming together, this is when communities come together and we’re going to need that kindness, we’re going to need that awareness, so that we can all keep each other safe. Not just ourselves, but the people around us.”