The NHL COVID-19 shutdown, one year later

It was March 11, 2020, and the Winnipeg Jets were holding their morning skate before a game at the Edmonton Oilers. Coach Paul Maurice had just stepped onto the ice when his captain, Blake Wheeler, skated over with a concerned expression.

“You think they’re going to shut us down tonight?” asked Wheeler.

“No,” Maurice responded, his mind squarely on the night’s opponent. “I think the Oilers are going to play Connor McDavid against ya.”

“No, I mean, are they going to shut down the game tonight?” Wheeler said. “You know, because of the COVID?”

Maurice wasn’t clued into the news at that point. He hadn’t seen the cases rising in North America after the coronavirus pandemic swept through Europe. He hadn’t heard about the cities in the U.S. that were shutting down mass gatherings of people, and in the process shutting down local sporting events. The idea that the 2019-20 NHL season could be interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic one month before the Stanley Cup playoffs was far from his mind. At least it was until the first intermission that night.

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The Jets had played a solid first period. Maurice was walking off the bench to the dressing room when he was stopped in his tracks, as he was informed that the entire NBA had been shut down because of a positive test for a Utah Jazz player.

Word soon spread through the Winnipeg and Edmonton dressing rooms. “Our players knew, and their players knew,” Maurice said. “And the game of hockey just disappeared after that. It was a disaster for the rest of the night. Their minds quickly went to [the shutdown].”

The Jets flew to Calgary after the game to prepare for a matchup with the Flames. “It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be coaching that weekend. I thought it was going to be a two- or three-day thing. They’d give us a new plan, and away we go,” Maurice recalled.

“And now we’re coming up on a year.”

The NHL paused its season on March 12, 2020. It was a decision weeks in the making, pushed into action when other pro sports began to shutter their operations. The next year would see the NHL take dramatic measures to continue playing games, including “bubble” cities with empty arenas, regular-season and playoff realignment and an incalculable amount of testing for COVID-19. But it all started there, on March 12, when hockey hit the pause button. We spoke with league and NHLPA executives, general managers and players about what they remembered about the pause and what the benefit of hindsight has shown them.

“It’s almost hard to believe we’ve been at this for a year and we’re still not done,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN. “In some respects, the year has gone in the blink of an eye. In other respects, it has seemed like it’s been forever.”

‘Aware of and focused on all possibilities’

According to the World Health Organization, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission first reported a cluster of “cases of pneumonia” in China on Dec. 31, 2019, that were eventually determined to be caused by a novel coronavirus. On Jan. 13, 2020, the first case outside of China was detected in Thailand. The virus spread quickly through Asia and Europe, and local governments began to enact restrictions.

One such restriction impacted the Swiss National League and its lower-tiered minor league. The Swiss government put an immediate ban on events involving more than 1,000 people in late February as “a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.” The Swiss League opted to play inside empty arenas. It finished its regular season, postponed its postseason until mid-March and then canceled it outright.

Other European-based players took notice. “I thought we were going to keep playing for a while,” said goalie Jeff Zatkoff in March. He was playing for the Straubing Tigers in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga. “I texted my general manager a few weeks ago, when the Swiss made the announcement that they were postponing games, and asked, ‘What’s going on here? Are we getting shut down?’ And he’s like, ‘No.’ Germany had been pretty vocal about not shutting down businesses and not closing the borders or any of that.”

“In some respects, the year has gone in the blink of an eye,” says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “In other respects, it has seemed like it’s been forever.” AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

But the Bavarian government soon shut down mass gatherings, too. Zatkoff and his teammates thought they would play “ghost games” inside empty arenas, but the DEL became one of the first hockey leagues to cancel its season without completing its regular season.

“It feels … weird. You didn’t lose, so you should be playing. But at the same time, everyone is on the same page,” Zatkoff said at the time.

The international hockey community began canceling events as well. The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association postponed a tour of Japan because of concerns over outbreaks there. On March 2, the International Ice Hockey Federation announced the sport’s most impactful reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, canceling six upcoming world championship tournaments scheduled for March and April. Another aspect of hockey life that was impacted: The coronavirus forced the shutdown of factories for Bauer and CCM in China, and players began voicing concerns about a potential stick shortage.

The NHL monitored all of this from afar and began considering options if its season were potentially interrupted.

“We’re aware of and focused on all possibilities,” Bettman said in early March. “But at this point, it would be premature to pick any one of the possibilities, especially because it may or may not become necessary in North America.”

The early-March GM meetings

The NHL started to take action on COVID-19 at the end of February, sending a memo to all 31 teams that passed along the advice it was getting from medical experts. It chronicled best practices, such as frequent hand-washing for players and staff.

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The NHL held its annual general managers meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, on March 1-2. The biggest topic of conversation wasn’t the encroaching international pandemic. It was what to do with emergency backup goaltenders, after an ice resurfacing machine driver named David Ayers backstopped the Carolina Hurricanes to a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the previous week.

But talk of the coronavirus couldn’t be ignored.

“I remember we were sitting in the GM meetings a week before that. We were talking about where this was going to go,” said Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. “None of us really knew what this was all about, so we were like everybody else, thinking it was going to be like a flu or a little bit worse and then it will go away.”

The NHL told its general managers that it was exploring contingency plans if the coronavirus became a significant health threat in North America, with the Stanley Cup playoffs looming in April.

“I think it’s very unlikely — knock on wood, I’m hopeful — that we would progress to a stage where we have to consider something that dramatic,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said at the time. “But certainly everything is possible, and we have to look at all possible contingencies. If it gets to that point, we will be ready.” On the table were options such as postponing or canceling games and playing inside of empty arenas.

The NHLPA was also monitoring the pandemic. “Our doctors were telling us: ‘Look, in all likelihood, this is coming here.’ Nobody knew how bad it would be. Nobody knew if we were going to escape it. It was an ever-gathering storm cloud,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told ESPN last week. “Over time, it became more and more a conviction of mine that this was going to come to dominate our lives.”

The Santa Clara County restrictions

The NHL’s response to COVID-19 started about a week before the pause. The weekend of March 6, the league proactively began closing some of its locker rooms to the media, with player availability at practices and after games held outside the room. It formalized that decision on March 9, releasing a statement with the NBA, MLB and MLS that the leagues were closing locker rooms and clubhouses to all nonessential personnel.

The San Jose Sharks, for example, began holding media availability in an auxiliary locker room in their practice facility, with media standing about 10 feet away from players as they spoke on the opposite end of the room. Instructions on “prevention and treatment” of COVID-19 were printed out and posted around the rink.

“We wanted to be proactive here, because it was only a matter of time before we had a positive test,” says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m a little OCD, so I’m always sanitizing myself, steering wheels and iPhones,” forward Evander Kane said. “Nothing new for me, but it’s nice to see other people doing it, too.”

The Sharks had one of the first decisions to make when it came to local COVID-19 restrictions. On March 5, Santa Clara County recommended “postponing or canceling mass gatherings and large community events where large numbers of people are within arm’s length of one another.” And that was when the county’s cases had reached only 20 in total.

The Sharks would play three more home games at SAP Center despite that recommendation. “SAP Center undergoes a rigorous cleaning procedure after each and every event, with particular attention paid to high-traffic, high-public-contact areas. Many areas will receive additional, enhanced measures throughout the course of events for the foreseeable future,” the team said.

The Sharks would announce to fans on March 12 that a part-time employee at SAP Center who worked those games had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. They left for a road trip on March 10 and weren’t scheduled to play another home game until March 19. As the Sharks left, Santa Clara County announced it was banning mass gatherings altogether, and the team planned on returning to play games in an empty Shark Tank or at potential neutral sites, perhaps in Oakland.

Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets became the first NHL team to announce they would play games without fans, after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced he would issue an order to ban spectators at games. The first game impacted by the decision was scheduled for March 12 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. “Admission to games will be limited to home and visiting club personnel, credentialed media and broadcast partners, essential club and arena staff and NHL officials. The games will be closed to the public,” said the team.

That game would never happen.

“We were waiting for what seemed like it was the inevitable,” Fehr recalled. “It wasn’t a nervous wait, but it was a combination of a hope that we could escape it, combined with a thought that if it was going to hit us, then let it hit us so we can deal with it.”

The decision to shut down

The night of March 11, 2020, Bettman was told to turn on his television and flip over to the Utah Jazz’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, causing the NBA game to be postponed just before tipoff.

“This is crazy. This can’t be true,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said on ESPN that night. “I mean, it’s not within the realm of possibility. It seemed more like out of a movie than reality.”

Already, NHL executives were texting each other about “the s— in the NBA tonight.” Bettman called Daly to organize a meeting. The league had been in discussions with the NHLPA, medical experts and other professional leagues about the COVID-19 problem for weeks. Bettman and Daly made the decision that night that they “didn’t want to be in that situation,” with a building full of people having to leave a postponed game.

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“We wanted to be proactive here, because it was only a matter of time before we had a positive test,” Bettman said.

The NHL’s senior leadership got on an emergency conference call that night, and then met again first thing in the morning on March 12. There was a call with the NHL board of governors at 1 p.m. ET that day to explain that the league had to pause the 2020-21 season.

“I said, ‘We need to take a pause. We need to see how this is developing,'” Bettman said. “I made the decision that it made no sense to try to continue to try to play, because I didn’t want to be in that situation, and it appeared inevitable there was going to be another positive test in sports.”

At 1:35 p.m., the NHL sent out a news release that the season had been put on hold and that evening’s eight scheduled games were postponed. “It is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time,” Bettman wrote. At 3 p.m. ET, there was a massive leaguewide meeting — from team presidents to marketing officials — to explain the next steps for the league. The meeting was held via conference call; the NHL, like the rest of society, hadn’t entered its Zoom era yet.

“Once we saw the other leagues shutting down, the [NHL] was very proactive. They maybe thought we could get a couple more games in, but they realized that we had to stop this quickly,” recalled Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill. “Everyone thought we’d get a handle on this. We also had to find out if it was as bad as everyone was saying. It was bad in Europe at the time, but it was only starting to hit the U.S. at the time. So there were a lot of people wondering if it was going to be OK.”

In that afternoon meeting, there wasn’t much talk of bubble cities or summertime restarts. The “pause” was, rather incredibly with the benefit of hindsight, seen as a temporary one. But there was discussion about how and when the postponed games would be made up.

“No one knew what was really going to happen. And they absolutely didn’t know how long term it was going to be,” said one NHL source. “Early on, they were looking at it as a two- or three-week plan.”

They weren’t the only ones.

How NHL players and coaches reacted

The Stars were reeling, having gone winless in seven straight games. Interim coach Rick Bowness decided not to have his players practice on the morning of March 12, with a game against Florida Panthers scheduled at home that night.

“The coaches got together at the practice rink and Jim [Nill] came in around 10 a.m. He said there was a 50-50 chance we were going to play that night,” Bowness recalled.

“I started making phone calls, and it wasn’t looking very positive for our next game,” Nill said.

“About a half-hour later,” Bowness said, “Jim came in and said, ‘We’re not playing.’ And we ended up having to tell the players that we were shutting down. Now, at that point, no one knew how long we were going to be shut down. It was a shock.”

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr remembers wondering, “OK, so we can’t have fans — it is worth it just to do it on TV? If it is, how do we do that?” Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Joel Quenneville and the Panthers were going to Dallas after a big win on the road against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. As they arrived for practice on March 12, they were told it was on hold. Soon after, it was canceled. Then the waiting started.

“I thought it was going to be short term as well,” said Quenneville. “But the whole universe was experiencing something that was unthought of.”

Around the league, text group chats between players were blowing up about the shutdowns.

“I remembered guys on the group chat being like, ‘What’s going on here?'” recalled defenseman Keith Yandle of the Panthers. “I don’t really watch the news too much, so I didn’t really know what was going on. And then there was talk that we might not play the next night, that it could be pushed back a day or two. Obviously, we know what happened after that.”

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, like many, didn’t believe the situation would spiral the way it did.

“I don’t think anyone thought we’d still be talking about it [a year later]. When it initially happened, I don’t think we knew the gravity of what was going on,” said the coach, whose game against the New Jersey Devils was postponed on March 12. “We knew we had to cancel the games, go home and regroup in a few weeks. Get back to something. And then it springboarded into what we dealt with this past year. Certainly, no one had the foreshadowing of all of this.”

What came next

Bettman considers himself fortunate for having had the ear of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on a number of occasions during the NHL’s shutdown. He knew what was happening in the pandemic, and he knew what metrics to track if the NHL’s pause was to be temporary.

“All you had to do was look at the rate of positivity and the climbing death rate to understand this was getting more and more serious,” Bettman said.

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The pause would continue for months as the NHL explored ways to return to the ice in a safe manner. By the spring, one word started popping up more and more in discussions with the league and the players: “bubbles.” Fehr remembered those first discussions on using “hub cities” to finish the season.

“Basically, how it came about on our end was talking to the doctors about creating something, with a combination of testing and very tight public health protocols, that would allow us to continue to broadcast games on television even if we didn’t have fans. What would it take to do that? How frequent would the testing have to be? How much would we have to limit access? Well into April and May, we were having those discussions,” he said.

“I don’t want to suggest that this was a remarkable thing. In retrospect, this was the obvious thing. OK, so we can’t have fans — it is worth it just to do it on TV? If it is, how do we do that?”

Initial concepts were to have four cities as “hubs” to complete the season. That was narrowed to two hubs, and eventually the decision was made to have them in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, as U.S. positivity rates climbed.

The rest is history: The NHL held the Stanley Cup playoffs from July through September, crowning the Tampa Bay Lightning as the champion of an unprecedented 24-team tournament. And it managed to do so without a single positive test for a player or coach inside the bubbles. But to make that happen, it required an untypical amount of collaboration between the league and its players, both in establishing “return to play” protocols and forging a new collective bargaining agreement to plot a financial course through a pandemic economy that had cost hundreds of jobs around the NHL, from arena workers to team staff.

Fehr said that the players’ role in collective bargaining takes two forms. The first are players that want to participate in the negotiation process, who sit in the meetings and take an active role. Then there are those who participate in meetings with the executive board and the negotiating committee. What was different this time was the overwhelming number of players who were engaged and involved in the process. There were hundreds of players involved in issues, including whether they would take their last paycheck or give it back to the owners.

“The elephant in the room during the collective bargaining during the summer and into the extension was that, in all of other collective bargaining experience, is that you can always make a deal,” Fehr said. “You might have to give up something you didn’t want to, but you can always make a deal at some point. But this was an elephant that you couldn’t control. The various federal and state governments were all acting differently.”

The NHL installed numerous protocols for the 2020-21 season, including mandating masks for coaches on the bench. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL and the NHLPA worked together again to shape the 2020-21 season, with 56 games, limited travel, realigned divisions and strict COVID-19 protocols. The ensuing months have seen well over 100 players miss games because of COVID-19-related absences and several teams postpone weeks of games amid COVID-19 outbreaks. On Feb. 10, the league had 49 players in its COVID-19-related absences list. The next day, the league issued new safety guidelines.

On Wednesday, there were just four players on that list. Positive tests are down. Vaccines are being distributed. Upward of 17 NHL teams have fans, or are planning to have them, back in their buildings. Things are improving, but the journey’s not over.

For Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, who tested positive for COVID-19 last month, the last year for his sport is but a footnote in the pandemic.

“Our story is nothing compared to what’s happened in the bigger picture in the U.S. and around the world,” he said. “All the people that have lost their lives because of COVID is a much, much bigger story than anything we’ve done here, hockey-wise. Sports remains exactly that: It’s a game. It’s an important game. But this was a paradigm shift that will change many things in the world for many years to come. It’s a generational shift that’s happened within a year. Who knows how the future will look?

“I think more than anything, we have to appreciate the day. We have to appreciate the moment. That’s what we’re doing today.”

Additional reporting by Emily Kaplan.

Published: 2021-03-12 12:32:16

Tags: #NHL #COVID19 #shutdown #year

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