Red Wings try to navigate 'uncharted waters' after NHL puts season on hold

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — The NHL has suspended its season, it announced Thursday.

With the coronavirus pandemic surging, and every professional and collegiate sports league postponing events and tournaments, the NHL made the expected decision.

Paul Boyer, head equipment manager of the Detroit Red Wings , wheels out equipment bags in the hallway of Capital One Arena on Thursday after the game against Washington was called off.

“In light of ongoing developments resulting from the coronavirus, and after consulting with medical experts and convening a conference call of the Board of Governors, the National Hockey League is announcing today that it will pause the 2019‑20 season beginning with tonight’s games," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. 

“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. 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.

“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. 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.”

How long the NHL’s hiatus lasts, nobody knows. And there is serious doubt whether there will be time to hold the playoffs and award the Stanley Cup, which has not been awarded only twice since 1893 — in 1919, when the final was cancelled after five games because of the Spanish flu, and in 2005 when the season was wiped out because of a labor lockout.

The Red Wings released a statement after the league made its decision later in the afternoon.

"Given the recent decision by the NHL to pause the season, all games are postponed until further notice. Plans are being developed for future games and we will notify you as soon as we have information to share," the Red Wings said.

With the coronavirus threat growing by the day, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely Wednesday after a player tested positive for the virus.

The NHL Players Association issued their own statement Thursday: “The decision to temporarily suspend play due to the COVID-19 pandemic is an appropriate course of action at this time. The NHLPA will continue to closely monitor this very 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.”

The Red Wings did not have a morning skate Thursday — nor did any team around the NHL, as all skates, practices and team meetings were canceled, a precursor for the announcement later in the afternoon for the 10 games on the schedule.

The Red Wings traveled to Washington on Wednesday afternoon, and had a game scheduled against the Capitals on Thursday evening, and Saturday in Tampa Bay.

After Wednesday’s practice, coach Jeff Blashill and players were prepared for a possible major announcement, given the way developments were headed.

“It is surreal," Blashill said during Wednesday’s media availability. “It’s times that we probably haven’t necessarily all lived through. It definitely shows you how interconnected we all are in the world today and how fast stuff like this can obviously spread.”

Speculation earlier in the week that pro leagues would be temporarily suspended didn’t shock forward Luke Glendening.

“Sports don't exist in a vacuum. We feel the stuff the real world does as well,” Glendening said. “Our thoughts and prayers are to those people who've been affected by it. You just have to try and stay as safe as you can.”

Where the NHL goes from here it anyone’s guess. A term many national analysts — and earlier in the week, coaches and players — used, was "uncharted waters."

There are only 185 regular-season games remaining — the Wings had 13 games left — or roughly 15 percent of the schedule.

It’s unlikely any of those games would be made up, with speculation the NHL would likely jump straight into the playoffs when  — or if — it resumes the schedule.

The NHL, which shares many arenas with the NBA, is mulling its options Thursday morning regarding the remainder of its regular season.

When the NHL had a shortened 2012-13 season because of a labor lockout, the league had a 48-game season with full playoffs taking place until late June.

But even going about beginning the playoffs currently would be a headache.

Many playoff-contending teams have played between 68 and 71 games; there is no uniformity. Early speculation around the league is if play does resume, teams’ winning percentage could be considered as the way to seed teams.

Losing the playoffs would be a major financial blow to the NHL, which depends heavily on gate revenue.

Not having these final regular-season games — and possibly the lucrative playoffs — would put a severe dent in league revenues and likely decrease the salary cap for next season.

There’s also the issue of the draft lottery, which is crucial for the Red Wings.

The Wings have long held the 31st and final spot in the league standings and officially clinched the position recently.

Normally, that would guarantee the Wings the best odds, 18.5 percent, of landing the No. 1 overall pick in a draft lottery.

But would that (the draft lottery) necessarily be the route the NHL goes if there is no completed 82-game regular season? No one knows.

Twitter: @tkulfan

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