It was the eleventh. March 2020, and the Winnipeg Jets held their morning skate before playing against the Edmonton Oilers. Coach Paul Maurice had barely stepped onto the ice when his captain Blake Wheeler stood on the ice with a pensive look on his face.
Do you think they’ll stop us tonight?” asked Wheeler.
No, Maurice replied, his mind already occupied with the opponent of the evening. I think the Oilers will play you with Connor McDavid.
No, I mean, are they closing the game tonight? Wheeler said. You know, because of COVID?
Maurice was not in the news at the time. He has not seen an increase in cases in North America since the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe. He has never heard of American cities banning mass gatherings of people while shutting down local sporting events. The thought that the 2019-20 NHL season would be interrupted by the COWID-19 pandemic, one month before the Stanley Cup playoffs, was far from his mind. At least until the first break that night.
The Jets played a solid first half. Maurice was on his way from the bench to the locker room when he was stopped at the railroad tracks when he was told that the entire NBA was closed due to a positive test from the Utah Jazz player.
The news spread quickly in the Winnipeg and Edmonton locker rooms. Our players knew it and their players knew it, Maurice said. And after that, the hockey game just disappeared. It was a disaster for the rest of the night. His consciousness quickly went to [Close].
The Jets flew to Calgary after the game to prepare for their game against the Flames. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be training that weekend. I thought it was going to be a two or three day event. They would give us a new plan and we would leave, Maurice recalls.
And now it’s been almost a year.
The NHL continued its season on the 12th. Mars 2020 min. That was the decision this week, spurred by the shutdown in other professional sports. Next year, the NHL will take drastic measures to keep the game going. This includes bubble cities with empty arenas, a reshuffling of the regular season and playoffs, and a large number of COVID-19 tests. But it all started there, on the 12th. March, when hockey hit the pause button. We spoke with league and NHLPA officials, general managers and players to find out what they took away from the break and how they benefited from the retrospective.
It’s almost unbelievable that we’ve been working on this for a year and we’re still not ready, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN. In a way, the year has flown by. On the other hand, it felt like an eternity.
Awareness and consideration of all possibilities
According to the World Health Organization, the Wuhan City Health Commission reported on 31. December 2019 for the first time a group of cases of pneumonia in China that were eventually attributed to a new coronavirus. On the 13th. In January 2020, the first case outside China was discovered in Thailand. The virus spread rapidly in Asia and Europe, and local authorities began to impose restrictions.
One of these restrictions concerned the Swiss National League and its affiliated leagues. In late February, as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, the Swiss government imposed an immediate ban on events involving more than 1,000 people. The Swiss league chose to play in empty arenas. He ended the regular season, postponed the post-season until mid-March and then cancelled it entirely.
Other European players have noticed. I thought we would play on for a while, guard Jeff Zatkoff said in March. He played for the Straubing Tigers in the German ice hockey league. When the Swiss announced a few weeks ago that they would be postponing the games, I wrote to my general manager and asked: What the hell is going on here? Are we being locked out? And it is: No. Germany has talked a lot about not closing businesses and not closing borders or anything else.
In some ways, the year has flown by, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. On the other hand, it felt like an eternity. AP Photo/Patrick Semanski
But the Bavarian government soon closed down the mass meetings as well. Zatkoff and his teammates thought they were playing ghost games in empty arenas, but the LED became one of the first hockey leagues to end the season without completing the regular season.
He seems… funny. You didn’t lose, so you have to play. But at the same time, everyone is on the same page, Zatkoff said at the time.
The international hockey community has also started to cancel events. The Women’s Professional Hockey Association has postponed a tour of Japan due to concerns over disease outbreaks there. The second one. In March, the International Ice Hockey Federation announced the sport’s most effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic: six World Cup tournaments scheduled for March and April were cancelled. Another aspect of hockey life discussed here: The coronavirus forced the closure of Bauer and SCM plants in China, and market players began to worry about a possible shortage of canes.
The NHL has been watching all of this from a distance and has begun looking at options if the season were to be shortened.
We are aware of all the possibilities and we are focusing on them, Bettman said in early March. But it would be premature at this stage to make a decision on any of the options, especially since it may or may not become necessary in North America.
GM meeting beginning of March
The NHL began taking action against COVID-19 in late February. She sent a memo to the 31 teams with the recommendations of the medical experts. It includes best practices such as frequent hand washing for players and staff.
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The annual meeting of NHL General Managers was held on December 1 and 2. March in Boca Raton, Florida. The main topic of discussion was not the handling of an international pandemic. That’s what had to happen to backup goalies after an ice machine named David Ayers led the Carolina Hurricanes to a victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs last week.
But the discussions about the coronavirus could not be ignored.
I remember we were in GM meetings the week before. We’ve talked about where we’re going, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. None of us really knew what it was, so we thought like everyone else that it was a flu or something worse and that it would pass.
The NHL has informed its general managers that it is considering plans in case the coronavirus becomes a serious health threat in North America and the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in April.
I think it’s very unlikely – I hope I’m knocking on a wood – that we’ll get to a point where we have to consider something so dramatic, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daley said at the time. But of course, anything is possible, and we have to take all contingencies into account. When that happens, we’ll be ready. The options on the table included postponing or cancelling matches and playing in empty stadiums.
The NHLPA also monitored the pandemic. Our doctors told us: In all likelihood, that’s how it’s going to happen. No one knew how bad it would get. No one knew if we could escape. It was a storm cloud that kept piling up, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told ESPN last week. As time went on, I became more and more convinced that this would rule our lives.
Santa Clara County Restrictions
The NHL’s response to COWID-19 began about a week before the work stoppage. The weekend of the 6th. In March, the league began actively sealing off some locker rooms to the media, and players could be reached outside the room during practice and after games. It formalized the decision on March 9 by issuing a statement along with the NBA, MLB and MLS that the leagues will close the locker rooms and clubs of all second division teams.
The San Jose Sharks, for example, host the media in the locker room of their training facility, with the media standing three feet away from the players while the players talk on the other side of the room. Instructions for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 were printed and posted around the rink.
We wanted to be proactive here because it was only a matter of time before there would be a positive test, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. Charles LeClaire-USA Sports Today
I’m a bit obsessive, so I always disinfect myself, the steering wheels and the iPhone, said striker Evander Kane. Nothing new for me, but it’s nice to see others doing it too.
The Sharks had one of their first COVID-19 local restriction decisions. The 5th. In March, Santa Clara County recommended postponing or canceling mass gatherings and large public events where large numbers of people are spaced apart. And at that time, there were only 20 cases in the county.
Despite this recommendation, the Sharks will still play three home games at the SAP Center. The SAP Center is thoroughly cleaned after each event, with particular attention paid to high traffic areas and areas of public contact. According to the group, additional and intensified measures will be taken in the near future in many areas for the duration of the events.
On the 12th. In March, the Sharks will announce to fans that an SAP Center employee who was working part-time during these games tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. They broke in on the 10th. March for a trip and had until the 19th. No other home games scheduled in March. When the Sharks left, Santa Clara County announced a total ban on mass gatherings, and the team planned to return to play in an empty Shark Tank or possibly neutral venues, perhaps in Oakland.
Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets have become the first NHL team to announce they will play without fans since Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced he would ban spectators at games. The first game affected by this decision was scheduled for the 12th. March against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Access to games is restricted to home and visiting club personnel, accredited media and broadcast partners, critical club and stadium personnel and NHL officials. The games will be closed to the public, the team said.
That game was never going to happen.
We were waiting for what seemed inevitable, Fehr recalls. It wasn’t nervous anticipation, but a combination of the hope that we could avoid it and the thought that if it hit us, we would have to do it then to deal with it.
Decision to close
On the night of the 11th. In March 2020, Bettman was instructed to turn on the television and watch the Utah Jazz’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jazz striker Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, causing an NBA game to be postponed just before kickoff.
It’s crazy. That can’t be true, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said on ESPN that night. I mean, it’s not in the realm of possibility. It’s more like a movie than reality.
NHL executives have already spoken at …. tonight in the NBA. Bettman called Daly to set up an appointment. The league has been in discussions with the NHLPA, medical experts and other professional leagues about COVID-19 for several weeks. Bettman and Daly decided that night that they didn’t want to be in that situation, with a building full of people having to leave the postponed game.
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We wanted to be proactive here, because it was only a matter of time before there would be a positive test, Bettman said.
NHL officials received an emergency conference call that evening and met on the morning of the 12th. March again. At 1 p.m., the NHL Board of Governors meets. and that day to declare that the league must pause the 2020-21 season.
I said: We need to take a break. We’ll have to see how it goes, Bettman said. I made the decision that there was no point in trying to continue playing because I didn’t want to be in that situation.
At 1:35 p.m., the NHL announced in a press release that the season had been suspended and that eight games scheduled for that evening had been postponed. At that point, it wasn’t worth it to keep playing, Bettman wrote. At 3pm. AND, a big meeting was held – from team presidents to marketing executives – to explain the next steps of the league. The meeting was a conference call; the NHL, like the rest of society, has not yet entered the Zoom era.
When we saw the other leagues close, [the NHL] was very active. They may have thought we could make a few more plays, but they realized we had to shut them down quickly, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill recalled. Everyone thought we’d make it. We also had to find out if it was as bad as everyone says it is. At that time it was already bad in Europe, but in the United States it was just beginning to have an effect. So a lot of people were wondering if everything was going to be okay.
The afternoon session didn’t talk much about Bubble Cities or summer resets. This pause was – in retrospect – considered temporary. But there was a discussion about how and when postponed games should be made up.
No one knew what was really going to happen. And they had absolutely no idea how long it would take, an NHL source said. They used to see it as a two or three week plan.
They were not the only ones.
How NHL players and coaches responded
The stars aligned for the Storm, who have yet to win any of their seven consecutive games. Interim coach Rick Bowness decided to call his players on the morning of the 12th. March to not practice due to a home game scheduled the same night against the Florida Panthers.
The coaches met in the training hall and Jim [Neill] arrived at about 10 o’clock. He said there was a 50-50 chance we would play that night, Bowness recalled.
I started calling and it didn’t look good for our next game, Neill said.
After about half an hour, Bowness said, Jim came in and said: We’re not playing. And at the end, we had to tell the players we were going to stop. At that point, no one knew how long we would be closed. It was a shock.
NHLPA Director Don Fehr recalls being surprised: So we can’t have fans. Is it worth doing it on television? If so, how? Gary A. Vasquez-USA Sports.
Coach Joel Quenneville and the Panthers traveled to Dallas after a big win over the St. Louis Blues. St. Louis, the defending Stanley Cup champions. When she was 12 years old. Mars came into the office, they were told he was suspended. Shortly after, everything was cancelled. Then the waiting began.
I also thought it would be short-lived, Quenneville said. But the whole universe was experiencing something it didn’t know.
Group conversations between players about game suspensions have broken out in the league.
I remembered the guys talking in the group chat: What’s going on here? recalls Panthers quarterback Keith Yandle. I don’t really watch the news, so I didn’t know what was going on. And then there was talk that we wouldn’t play the next night, that it would be postponed a day or two. What happened next, of course, we know.
Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, like many others, didn’t think things would work out.
I don’t think anyone would have thought we would still be talking about it [a year later]. When it happened, I don’t think we were aware of the seriousness of what was going on, said the coach, whose game against the New Jersey Devils was scheduled for Week 12. The month of March has been moved. We knew that in a few weeks we would have to cancel games, go home and regroup. Go back to something. And then it broke down what we had dealt with last year. Of course, no one saw this coming.
What happened next
Bettman considers himself fortunate to have had the ear of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, more than once during the NHL’s closure. He knew what was going on during the pandemic, and he knew what parameters to follow if the NHL pause was to be temporary.
You only have to look at the percentage of positives and the increase in mortality rate to see that the situation is getting more serious, Bettman said.
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The hiatus will last several months while the NHL looks for ways to safely get back on the ice. As the spring progressed, more and more words came out in conversations with the league and the players: Bubbles. Fehr recalled early discussions about using Hub Cities at the end of the season.
In the end, we talked to doctors about a system that combines testing with very strict public health protocols, so we can continue to broadcast the games even if we don’t have fans. What needs to be done? How often should the tests be performed? To what extent should we restrict access? Well, we had those discussions in April and May, he said.
I don’t want to say it was surprising. In retrospect, it was obvious. Okay, so we can’t get fans worthy of being on TV? If so, how?
Initially, the plan was to include four cities as centers to complete the season. Two hubs were chosen, and it was eventually decided to locate them in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, due to growing interest in the United States.
The rest is history: From July to September, the NHL hosted the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the Tampa Bay Lightning being crowned champions in an unprecedented 24-team tournament. And this without a single positive test for the player or coach within the bubbles. But that required unusual cooperation between the league and the players, both in establishing return-to-play protocols and a new collective bargaining agreement, to chart a financial course through a pandemic economy that has cost hundreds of jobs throughout the NHL, from stadium employees to team personnel.
According to Fehr, the role of players in collective bargaining takes two forms. The first are actors who want to be part of the negotiation process, who attend meetings and play an active role. Then there are those who attend meetings with the Board of Directors and the Negotiating Committee. What was different this time was the large number of players who pitched in and contributed. Hundreds of players are wondering if they will take their last salary or give it to the owners.
The elephant in the room during the summer collective bargaining and the annex was that in any other collective bargaining you can always get a deal, Fehr said. You may have to give up something you didn’t want, but you can always make a deal at some point. But it was an elephant you couldn’t control. The federal and state governments have acted differently.
The NHL has established many protocols for the 2020-21 season, including mandatory bench masks for coaches. Kirby Lee-USA Sports
The NHL and NHLPA have once again joined forces to shape the 2020-21 season, with 56 games, limited travel distances, revamped divisions and strict COVID-19 protocols. In the following months, more than 100 players missed games due to KOVID-19-related suspensions, and several teams postponed games for weeks due to KOVID-19 outbreaks. On the 10th. In February, there were 49 players on KOVID-19’s conditional absence list. The next day, the union issued new safety rules.
There were only four players on that list on Wednesday. Positive tests are declining. The vaccine is distributed. More than 17 NHL teams have or plan to have fans in their buildings. It’s getting better, but the journey isn’t over yet.
For Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, who tested positive for COVID-19 last month, the past year is just a footnote in the pandemic affecting his sport.
Our history is nothing compared to what has happened in the United States and around the world, he said. All the people who died because of COVID, that’s a much, much bigger story than anything we’ve done here in hockey. The sport remains what it is: It’s a game. It’s a big game. But it was a paradigm shift that will change many things in the world for many years to come. It was a generational shift that took place over the course of the year. Who knows what the future will look like?
I think we should cherish this day more than anything. We must cherish the present moment. That’s what we’re doing today.
Additional coverage by Emily Kaplan.
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