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Updated: It's time to follow the NHL's lead and shut down hockey at every level

Shutting the doors on hockey at every level may seem like an overreaction, but when it comes to people’s health, overreaction is impossible, particularly when you can see the devastating results of the coronavirus.
Empty rink

Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Here’s how quickly this story is changing. I recently did a 20-minute podcast with colleague Ryan Kennedy. And in that 20 minutes, the Canadian Hockey League, American League and North American Jr. League announced they were pausing their seasons and the OHL Cup midget tournament was cancelled. The Frozen Four national college hockey championship was cancelled shortly after that.

So I apologize if this is moot by the time you read it. But if there were ever a time for minor hockey to emulate the NHL, now is that time. It will probably be mandated anyway, but it’s time for Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to shut the game down indefinitely. That’s every minor peewee house league tournament, every league playoff, every Jr. A league and every practice. Every. Single. One.

Is that an overreaction? Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. When it comes to people’s health, overreaction is impossible, particularly when you can see the devastating results of this virus from countries that didn’t take it seriously enough and give it the attention it deserves. You’re either exposing people or you’re not. This is the busiest time of the year for the game at all levels and the time when the most people are congregating at arenas all over the continent to watch their kids play. Everything about human nature tells us a lot of those people won’t heed warnings until it affects them directly. Why wait that long when we know the devastating effects of this illness?

I was listening to CBC Radio today and a public health official in Toronto pointed out that all the cases in Canada’s largest city can be traced back to the sources. And that’s huge. Because by the time you lose the trail on this, it’s already too late. If you can keep it contained, why wouldn’t you do everything to keep it that way? If hockey can do its part by shutting down, why would it not do that? This is an illness that travels in small spaces and if you’ve ever played or coached minor hockey in this continent, there are few places that are smaller and confined than hockey dressing rooms in community arenas.

This all comes on the heels of the announcement by the NHL Thursday to pause until such time as it is, “appropriate and prudent.” It seems like we won’t be seeing hockey for a minimum of a month, if at all. It’s heartening to see the NHL take the route it did, given that unlike every other major professional sports league in North America, the NHL relies more on gate receipts to drive revenues. That’s pretty much why the Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks ignored the recommendations of government and public health officials and only acquiesced when they were forced to shut down.

The Saskatchewan Jr. League and the Northern Ontario Jr. League have both said they will continue to play through this. That’s incredibly reckless. There is at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 in Sudbury from a person who attended a mining conference in Toronto, one that was attended by hundreds of people in Sudbury. That league has a team in the Sudbury suburb of Rayside-Balfour. The NOJHL has committed to going ahead with games Thursday night, one of them in Rayside-Balfour.

So like the Blue Jackets and Sharks, they’ll continue playing until they’re mandated to stop. And that’s where it looks as though this is going. Ontario has mandated that all children will remain home from school for at least two weeks after next week’s March break and will return to school in early April at the earliest.

This is a devastating turn of events, for people inside and outside of the game. There are hundreds of thousands of people who will be affected by that, from the full-time staff of NHL teams to the part-time workers to all those who are employed by bars and restaurants near and in arenas. We are most certainly in uncharted territory here, but public health is the paramount concern. Let’s get past this and then worry about what we’re going to do about hockey this season. It’s time, before it’s too late.

UPDATE: Hockey Canada announced Thursday evening that it has made the decision to cancel "all Hockey Canada-sanctioned activities" as of Friday, March 13.

“Without question, this is an unprecedented period of difficulty for the sports world," Hockey Canada said in a statement. "The health and safety of all participants in sport, including players, coaches, staff, officials, fans, family, volunteers and the general public, is of the utmost importance to Hockey Canada."

Likewise, USA Hockey announced the cancellation of its national championships and Disabled Hockey Festival.

“Safety of our participants has always been our top priority and with the current coronavirus situation, our executive committee unanimously decided to cancel these national events,” said president of USA Hockey Jim Smith.

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