Michael Peca knows all about NHL work stoppages.
The two-time Frank Selke Award-winning forward endured two lockouts and lost another season due to a contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres during his 14-year career, which ended with Columbus in 2009.
Never could Peca have imagined a season – never mind essentially the entire North American sports schedule – being placed in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s weird because nothing like this has ever happened, and it’ll probably never happen again, hopefully,” Peca said Thursday, when the NHL joined numerous pro sports leagues in suspending its season.
“It’s like, `Is this even real?’” he added. “But there’s a big-picture purpose to it. … It’s about making sure we can slow down if not cease, but more likely slow down how quickly it’s spreading.”
The NHL placed the final month of its season on ice – for now – but hopes to eventually resume play and still award the Stanley Cup.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league followed the NBA’s lead after Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19.
With the two leagues sharing numerous facilities and locker rooms across North America, Bettman said: “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 NHL Players’ Association backed the decision, calling it “an appropriate course of action.”
The decision left numerous unanswered questions, ranging from when games might resume to what shape players might be in once they return. The stoppage also raised concerns over what the economic impact might be on the bottom line in the league’s 31 markets.
As Nashville Predators president Sean Henry put it: “We’re working through really uncharted territory.”
Henry wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the season not resuming.
“I think there’s a fear for all of us of that,” he added. “We all want answers. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of them.”
There have only been two years in which the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded since 1893. It happened in 1919, when the final was canceled after five games because of the Spanish flu outbreak, and then again in 2005, when an NHL lockout wiped out the entire season.
Though disappointed, players understood the reasoning.
“Nothing is more important than everyone’s health and safety. The league did the right thing today,” Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno wrote in a post on his Twitter account. “We have the best fans in the world, and we’ll get through this together.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
While players will continue to be paid, they won’t be allowed to practice together for at least the short term, the Predators’ Henry said.
The NHL has not said any player has tested positive for COVID-19. The Washington Capitals, who used the same visiting locker room as the Jazz at New York’s Madison Square Garden, said they will closely monitor the health of players, coaches and staff.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, who followed the Jazz into two arenas last weekend and occupied the same locker room while in Boston, said deep cleaning and sanitizing was done before they arrived.
In Dallas, Stars forward Alexander Radulov has been sick, but team president Brad Alberts said no players had yet been tested.
Alberts said he’s encouraged a majority of employees to work from home. Players have also been encouraged to quarantine themselves in the event they might have contracted the virus.
Retired NHL forward and Minnesota Wild assistant director of player development Matt Hendricks noted how different this hiatus is to past stoppages.
“This is kind of no-man’s territory,” Hendricks said.
“When we were locked out, we had the ability to go and skate and train,” he said. “But this one’s a little bit different in the sense that you really don’t want to expose yourself if you don’t have to. … So going into public gyms that might not be the best thing to do to put yourself at risk and put others at risk.”
In Buffalo, former Sabres and Wild forward Jason Pominville said it can’t be easy for players to stop competing a month before the playoffs were scheduled to begin..
“They just want to play, they’re in a rhythm, not a lot of practices, playing a lot of games and then, all of a sudden, it’s shut down for who knows how long,” said Pominville, who hasn’t filed his retirement papers since completing his 15th NHL season last year.
He’s spent this season playing in a local beer league. Upon learning of the NHL pausing its season, Pominville playfully reached out to former Sabres teammate, Kyle Okposo.
“I was like, `Hey bud, if you or any of the boys are looking to skate, my beer league’s not canceled yet, and you guys are welcome,’” Pominville said, laughing. “We’re always looking to get better.”