The novel coronavirus has brought professional sports in North America to its knees.
On Thursday, the National Hockey League announced it would suspend play due to dangers associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the flu-like illness that has become a global pandemic.
“The NHL has been attempting to follow the mandates of health experts and local authorities, while preparing for any possible developments without taking premature or unnecessary measures," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement after a conference call with the Board of Governors Thursday afternoon. “However, following last night’s news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus – and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point – it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time.”
The Maple Leafs’ match-up against the Nashville Predators at Scotiabank Arena was among 10 Thursday night games scrapped. In other games involving Canadian teams, the New York Islanders were scheduled to play at Calgary, the Buffalo Sabres were to play in Montreal and the Vancouver Canucks were to play at Arizona.
By mid-afternoon Major League Baseball also announced it would suspend all spring training games and delay the start of the regular by at least two weeks. Major League Soccer and the Professional Lacrosse League also stopped playing on Thursday. The NBA announced Wednesday it would suspend its season after Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive. His teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive.
“We will continue to monitor all the appropriate medical advice, and we will encourage our players and other members of the NHL community to take all reasonable precautions – including by self-quarantine, where appropriate," Bettman’s statement continued. "Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup. Until then, we thank NHL fans for your patience and hope you stay healthy.”
No timeline was announced for when games could resume. If the season is cancelled due to the global coronavirus pandemic, it would be only the second time the Stanley Cup has not been awarded since 1919. That year, the finals between the Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans were cancelled after five games due to an outbreak of the Spanish flu. There was also no Stanley Cup in 2004-05 when play was halted due to a labour lockout.
Earlier Thursday, the league asked teams to look into arena availability through the end of August, pointing to a pause and possible resumption in play.
“The health and safety of our fans, players, staff and media remains at the forefront of our decision-making, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are in full support of the decision reached today by the NHL, its member clubs and players,” Maple Leafs President and Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan said in a statement shortly after the announcement. "Like you, we have many questions about what’s to come. Our thanks to our fans for their support and understanding as we continue to navigate this very fluid situation.”
Toronto was third in the NHL’s Atlantic Division and in a playoff position when play was stopped. The Stanley Cup was scheduled to begin a few days after the regular-season was completed on April 4. The Maple Leafs had 12 games left, six on home ice.
Practices, morning skates and team meetings were cancelled Thursday across the league. In Toronto, players who had already shown up at the arena were sent home. Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin, who is recovering from a hand injury, was pulled off the ice.
Referees and linesmen assigned to officiate games were also sent home.
“Public health and safety are a priority at a time like this," Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said in a statement released by the team. "As players, we support the decision to suspend the season for the safety of the teams and their fans.
"We look forward to the day we can get back playing the game we love in front of full arenas.”
On Wednesday night, the Oilers lost 4-2 at home to the Winnipeg Jets.
“You understand that this is a world health crisis, but we have never gone through anything like this and nothing that has affected the game like this,” Edmonton coach Dave Tippett said afterward. "You understand when you are going through lockouts and things like that, that there is a business part of the game.
“But this is a health part of the game, a life part of the game. It affects everybody, not just hockey or sports. It's a turbulent time in the world and we will just have to deal with it as it comes."
In Calgary, the Flames issued a news release saying the organization was in full support of the league decision.
“We are currently working on answers to frequently asked questions from our various stakeholders and it is our intention to communicate on a regular basis as this situation is fluid,” the statement said. “As with the NHL, we are hopeful to resume the season and playoffs when appropriate and prudent.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets were scheduled to host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday at Nationwide Arena in the first NHL game without fans. The San Jose Sharks said Wednesday they would play their final three home games without fans at SAP Center.
Now everything is on hold.
"The decision to temporarily suspend play due to the COVID-19 pandemic is an appropriate course of action at this time,” the NHL Players’ Association said in a statement. “The NHLPA will continue to closely monitor this dynamic situation and remain in daily discussions with the league, our medical consultants, and our players regarding all aspects of this matter. The players are looking forward to the opportunity to resume play in front of hockey fans everywhere.”
More than 127,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the outbreak began in China in December. The disease has killed more than 4,700 people, including one in Canada.
Symptoms include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. Those most at risk of this include older adults and those with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.
In baseball, operations were shut down after five afternoon spring training games in Florida concluded. The Blue Jays, who played the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, were to meet the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre on Opening Day on March 26.
In a statement posted on the Blue Jays website, Major League Baseball called the situation an emergency. It said agreement was reached following a call between Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. and all 30 clubs, and after consultation with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
“This action is being taken in the interests of the safety and well-being of our players, clubs and our millions of loyal fans,” the statement read. “MLB will continue to evaluate events leading up to the start of the season. Guidance related to daily operations and workouts will be relayed to clubs in coming days.”
Major League Soccer, which has teams in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, said it would suspend play for 30 days as the circuit assesses the impact of COVID-19 with its medical staff and public health officials.
“The safety of our players, staff and fans is our primary concern,” Toronto FC president Bill Manning said. “We completely support the league’s decision.”
In addition, the NCAA’s wildly popular basketball men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were cancelled. The PGA’s Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., will continue on Friday and the weekend without fans. Spectators were allowed to attend the opening round on Thursday.