The NHL is telling its players and staff to stay away from the rink and self-isolate while hockey is on a hiatus of unknown length during the coronavirus pandemic.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday he was not aware of any player or league employee testing positive for the new coronavirus, but he can’t say for certain that no one is feeling ill or awaiting test results. The league announced Thursday it was putting its season on “pause,” but Bettman remains optimistic of resuming play and eventually awarding the Stanley Cup.
“That would be the goal,” Bettman said in a phone interview with The Associated Press and the NHL’s website. “Health, safety, well-being of the NHL family, especially and including our fans, is most important. If the business considerations and the money were the only thing, then we and a bunch of others would keep playing.”
Bettman told owners the first positive test result by any player would mean “all bets are off” and that the decision to suspend the season came after that happened in the NBA. There are some 700 players among the 31 NHL teams across North America.
“It was clear to me that no matter what scenario we came up with that we continued to play with, either with or without fans, it was inconceivable, certainly unlikely, that we were going to get through the rest of the regular season at minimum without somebody testing positive,” Bettman said.
Unlike NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who said his league’s season would be suspended at least 30 days, Bettman would not put a timeframe on the NHL hiatus. Bettman said several contingencies are being worked but would not give a definitive date on when that would have to happen or how long into the summer things could go. The Stanley Cup is typically awarded in early June after two months of playoff games.
“I think the scope of what this is still unknown to all of us,” prominent players’ agent Stephen Bartlett told The AP. “I think the only thing that we can counsel people is to take a deep breath and take whatever steps necessary and prudent to keep yourself healthy. And rest assured, especially for our athlete population, that those guys are in the very best of shape.”
League and Players’ Association officials were meeting Friday to spell out a plan for what can be done while the season is on hold. Bettman isn’t sure how long players will be advised to stay home.
“We’ll be looking to progress in terms of activities once we get a handle on whether or not anybody in the short term is going to test positive,” Bettman said.
Players seem to be on board with the NHL’s response. San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane tweeted the NHL “has done the right thing in taking this pause to help the risk of spreading this virus.”
Boston-based agent Mark Witkin is telling his players to use common sense when training and stay upbeat despite the lack of games and practices.
“I think the NHL is probably smart in not putting any time frame on it because it’s all temporary anyways,” Witkin said. “No one knows.”
Bettman also said it is not the NHL’s independent call when to resume play and did not rule out the possibility of games in empty arenas.
Even after the NHL endured a full-season lockout in 2004-05 and another in 2012-13 that led to a 48-game season, former player Matt Hendricks called this “kind of no-man’s territory.”
“It’s weird because nothing like this has ever happened, and it’ll probably never happen again, hopefully,” retired forward Michael Peca said. “It’s like, `Is this even real?’ But there’s a big-picture purpose to it. … It’s about making sure we can slow down if not cease, but more likely slow down how quickly it’s spreading.”