It’s impossible to keep up with the havoc the COVID-19 virus is wreaking on the hockey world at the moment. It seems almost every passing hour, another European league is cancelling its season or another NHL team is being recommended to either postpone their games or play them in front of no fans. Wednesday evening, the Blue Jackets announced they will play their remaining home games with restricted attendance, allowing only "home and visiting club personnel, credentialed media and broadcast partners, essential club and arena staff and NHL officials." The San Jose Sharks followed suit with a similar announcement, closing three March home games to the public.
And that Columbus and San Jose might – and probably won't – be the last teams playing to empty arenas is a huge issue for the NHL because, far more than the other Big Four professional sports in North America, gate receipts and not TV money drive revenues. If nobody comes to the game, NHL teams lose tons of money.
It’s a situation that is changing hour-by-hour, but there seems to be this sinking and depressing feeling that at some point, the NHL season could be in very serious jeopardy. Most teams are approaching their coming home games under the following four scenarios:
• They play their games at home as scheduled with fans in the building.
• They play future games in front of no spectators.
• Games are postponed and the league takes a pause, which would push back the end of the season and the playoffs.
• The rest of the regular season and the playoffs are cancelled.
Think about it. If a labor dispute can wipe out an NHL season, so can a global pandemic, something COVID-19 was declared to be today by the World Health Organization, which in three months has spread to 121,000 people worldwide and whose cases outside China has increased thirteen fold in the past two weeks. “We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” WHO general director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.”
We can only hope the NHL and its teams listen, which prior to Wednesday hadn't really been the case. The San Jose Sharks first ignored recommendations from the Santa Clara Health Department to postpone mass gatherings and played two home games before an outright ban was put in place that will affect the aforementioned home games. Before the order prohibiting mass gatherings in Ohio, the Blue Jackets had announced plans to go ahead with Thursday and Saturday games as scheduled with fans in the building. Those plans, of course, have since changed.
What’s basically happening here is that the decision is being taken out of the hands of the teams, which is as it should be. You can’t really blame an NHL team for doing everything it can to not have its business disrupted, especially when putting the most people into your building as possible is the No. 1 determinant of revenues. But with the virus spreading globally faster than the medical community can keep up, more will be yet to come.
The Women’s World Championship slated for later this month in Halifax and Truro, N.S., has already been cancelled. The International Ice Hockey Federation, which has already said it will either play the season-ending tournaments with fans in the building or not at all, will rule in the coming days on the Under-18 World Championship slated to start April 16 in Michigan. And the World Championship, the biggest cash cow for the IIHF, certainly seems doomed, doesn’t it? It’s slated to begin May 8 in Switzerland, where the top two professional leagues there has already played games to empty arenas and postponed their playoffs. The country has seen four deaths because of the virus and saw confirmed cases jump from 150 to about 650 in one day this week. Even if against all odds the tournament were to go ahead, what NHL player in his right mind would take the chance of entering that kind of epicenter for a year-end tournament? It’s hard enough getting NHL players to commit to the Worlds at the best of times. It will be almost impossible to this season.
And it’s not as though we are without precedent. In 1919, the Stanley Cup final was cancelled after Game 5 when a number of players fell seriously ill with Spanish influenza, an unusually deadly pandemic that affected about one-third of the world’s population and ultimately killed Montreal Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall. It’s difficult to believe it would ever come to that 101 years later, but it’s pretty clear that 2020 will be remembered as a season like no other, wherever things end up.
UPDATE: The NHL announced Wednesday that it is consulting with medical experts and evaluating its options following the NBA's decision to suspend its season indefinitely as a result of a player testing positive for coronavirus. The NHL expects to provide further update Thursday.
(This story was updated to include the Blue Jackets' and Sharks' announcements that remaining home games will be closed to the public.)
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