Commissioner Gary Bettman, who halted the NHL season on Thursday because of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, sounded an optimistic note on Friday when asked what will happen next for the league. He did not, however, offer an estimate of how long the league's "pause" will last and did not offer specifics on the impact the stoppage will have on the remainder of the regular season, the playoffs, or the annual draft.
“I believe that in a credible, sensible way we’ll be able to, at some point, complete the season and get through the playoffs and award the Stanley Cup,” Bettman said via phone during an interview aired on the NHL Network.
“I don’t see how I could set a timeframe one way or the other. There are people in the medical community and charged with governmental decisions that are ultimately going to make the decision as to when it’s safe to occupy our buildings with or without fans. So at the end of the day, a number is just a number. I think it’s better to say OK, we are taking a pause and we’re focusing on what we need to do when we can come back, when it’s appropriate to come back and safe to come back.”
A memo sent on behalf of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Assn. to players, teams and agents on Friday advised players to self-quarantine for six days, after which matters will be reassessed, according to a person familiar with the memo but not authorized to speak about it publicly. “The best thing about going home and trying to avoid as many people as possible is that the fewer people you interact with, the less likely it is that you’ll contract the coronavirus,” Bettman said. “The fact of the matter is this is an unusual, hopefully once-in-a-lifetime situation and so the first thing we needed to do was take the pause and get the players back to their home cities, get them home, and now we can focus on what comes next.”
In the memo, scenarios were outlined for a resumption of the season. Among them was a scenario of staging a mini training camp for players after public health officials give their approval for large gatherings. However, the ever-changing situation could render that moot. Players will receive the three paychecks they were scheduled to receive for the rest of the regular season.
Players are not allowed to practice in team facilities at the moment, but players who are injured or disabled will be allowed to receive treatment in team facilities starting on Saturday. “Once we get a handle on how many cases we might have, if any, then it may be appropriate at some point for players to be able to work out at the clubs’ facilities, maybe do some skating at the clubs’ facilities,” Bettman said, “as I know they’re anxious to be able to do things other than be at home, and to stay in shape and get back into a routine.”
Bettman said that until Wednesday afternoon he was planning to allow the season to continue with at least some teams playing in buildings without fans, and that he had told owners the league would stop play if an NHL player tested positive for the coronavirus. News that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive changed the NHL’s course.
“When the Utah Jazz player tested positive and the players couldn’t play the game and the fans in Oklahoma City had to be sent home already having been at the game, it occurred to me quite vividly that it was highly unlikely that we were going to get through the rest of our season without a player testing positive,” Bettman said, “ and I wanted to then get ahead of a scene like the NBA had on Wednesday night and simply stop things and pause so that we could wait to see how the pandemic plays out. ...
“I just decided in light of the fact that this pandemic seems to be affecting more and more people, and the more people you interact with the more likely it is you’re going to come in contact with it, and the fact that two of our teams occupied the locker rooms within 24 hours in the last week of the time the Utah Jazz did, again, the likelihood that we were going to have a player test positive was only going to increase the longer we played. And so that was how the decision was made.”
The board of governors signed off on it during a Thursday afternoon conference call.
Bettman said he has an internal task force that meets several times a day to discuss the issues the league faces. “What’s the latest we could actually play? How far into the summer can we go? When can we hold the draft? If we can’t hold the draft do we do a conference call? Do we move the awards show? There’s no shortage of things for us to be considering which we’re doing and analyzing,” he said. “But they’re all contingencies because we don’t know when, and we don’t know the circumstances.”
Some NHL teams, recognizing that arena employees will suffer without the paychecks they earn at games, have offered financial help to those employees. The Pittsburgh Penguins said they will pay full and part-time arena and service employees at PPG Paints Arena with funds from Penguins players, the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, and the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Billionaire California businessman Ron Burkle is a co-owner of the Penguins.
Also, part-time employees at SAP Center, home of the San Jose Sharks, will be paid by Sharks Sports & Entertainment for games they were to have worked the rest of this month involving the Sharks and minor-league San Jose Barracuda. And Ilitch Holdings, parent company of the Detroit Red Wings, set up a $1 million fund “to cover one month’s wages for our part-time staff for games, concerts, and events that they would have otherwise worked were it not for the recent cancellations and postponements caused by the coronavirus crisis,” the company said in a statement. That includes staff at other venues owned or co-owned by the company in Detroit.
The Ducks said on Thursday that club owners Henry and Susan Samueli, who manage the Honda Center, will pay full-time and part-time workers who were scheduled to work at now-canceled events in the arena the rest of this month.
The Southern California Amateur Hockey Assn. canceled the remainder of its playoffs, which were to end with 10 championship games on Sunday at the Toyota Sports Performance Center in El Segundo.