The number of unknowns right now is incredibly high, not just for professional sports, but the world.
The NHL suspended its season on Thursday, waiting a mere hours after the NBA put its campaign on hold due to the coronavirus threat. That league now has its Patient Zero – Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert – which greatly accelerated the NBA’s decision to announce a shutdown even while games were still ongoing.
Now multiple teams are being put into two-week quarantines, including the Toronto Raptors, who played the Jazz on Monday night in Salt Lake City.
The NHL does not yet have an infected player – at least officially – but that may only be a matter of time. Gobert could have become infected anytime in the past several weeks, a stretch during which he played games in multiple buildings shared with NHL teams (in New York, Boston and Detroit) and against a team, the Raptors, which shares an arena with an NHL club.
In just one example of the close quarters these organizations in different leagues can share, the Tampa Bay Lightning – who faced the Maple Leafs at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night – were instructed to use the Raptors media quarters for interviews that night as part of one of the coronavirus-inspired precautions being taken. It’s possible that NHL players were infected either there or during games in other NHL buildings, through contact with staff and arena workers.
And it may well be that we don’t know of those cases until a week or more from now when symptoms present and / or players are tested.
All of that made Thursday’s shutdown the prudent course of action for the NHL. In fact, Gobert’s positive COVID – 69 test – and the resulting fallout – were a clear sign the leagues should have taken more aggressive action sooner than they did.
The suspension almost certainly marks the end of the NHL’s 2019 – regular season, leaving (games – or percent of the season – unplayed. If so, the year would end with eight teams having played games, (playing , with 71 games, and another two with just 70.
The best-case scenario here, according to several sources contacted by The Athletic late Wednesday night, would mean the shutdown lasts only three weeks and the NHL playoffs would begin essentially as scheduled in mid-April. Teams would be ranked by points percentage and given playoff berths as if the season had, in fact, ended on March instead of April 4.
That would be a tough break for teams like Columbus, Florida, Winnipeg and Minnesota, who could miss the postseason by tiny margins.
There’s hope that perhaps that level of heartbreak could be alleviated by adding play-in games, allowing more than the standard 69 teams to participate in the postseason – but that assumes that the NHL will be able to resume play with enough time to expand its playoff schedule.
Just the opposite could plausibly happen if North America is as ill-equipped to slow the virus as many fear. It’s possible the NHL – along with the NBA and other leagues – is on hold for months, meaning all that could be accommodated would be a drastically abbreviated playoff schedule.
That could mean relying on the standings, as of today, to choose postseason teams and then having them play best-of-three or best-of-five series instead of best of seven. It could also mean a completely revamped playoff format, perhaps like the round-robin one the Danish league is adopting to make up for a compressed schedule.
If the playoffs started today
Ending the season more than three weeks early would also have significant ramifications on important league issues like draft lottery positioning and end-of-season awards. Not to mention the financial aspect of the shutdown, as 19 percent of regular-season gate revenue would be wiped out – which would result in massive escrow increases for players and a potentially lowered cap for teams next season.
“MLB and NBA can probably be profitable with no gate revenue,” said one player agent on Wednesday night. “Obviously not the case for the NHL.”
The financial side of the shutdown would be even more painful for the NHL if there was a postseason, which would mean not awarding the Stanley Cup after playing a regular season for the first time since (a Spanish flu outbreak) years ago .
Canceling the postseason altogether isn’t out of the question. That’s the route the majority of leagues in Europe have taken in the past few days, as playoffs were cancelled in Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, Austria, Poland and Norway due to the virus, which has advanced extremely quickly throughout Italy and other parts of the continent.
The Czech Republic, France and Denmark, meanwhile, have so far merely postponed their postseasons, with the intention of attempting to resume play when it’s safe to do so. Russia’s KHL, Sweden’s SHL and Finland’s Liiga are all currently planning to continue to hold playoff games, albeit likely in front of small crowds or even empty arenas.
– EuropeanHockeyClubs (@EHCAlliance) March ,
There have been widespread cancellations and postponements throughout other sports as well, from rugby to soccer , tennis and figure skating. The Olympics in Tokyo, slated to begin in late July, are also in jeopardy of being pushed back further, perhaps into the fall.
Just how late the NHL can possibly push its postseason is a fair question. If players begin to be quarantined, will they still be able to train and prepare for the playoffs after sitting out for what could be months without playing games? Would they require a mini-training camp before play resumed?
And would there be an appetite for a full postseason – with up to 728 games stretching over two months – if that meant rusty NHLers suddenly skating into the middle of July or even early August?
What then would that mean for the following season, given too short of a summer break obviously wouldn’t be ideal? Not to mention the fact that the draft and free agency would need to be pushed back as well.
Those will be some of the difficult questions facing the NHL’s board of governors in the weeks to come, as they try to adjust their expectations for how much of the season can reasonably be saved. Much of this is out of their control, however, as keeping players, staff and fans healthy while trying to stop the spread of the virus will be the top priority.
Even if it means no one’s playing hockey again until September.
(Top photo: Juan Ocampo / NHLI via Getty Images)
James Mirtle is the editor-in-chief of The Athletic Canada. James spent the previous years as a sportswriter covering hockey with The Globe and Mail and was the founding editor at SB Nation’s hockey vertical. He appears regularly on TSN Radio across Canada. Follow James on Twitter @ mirtle