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The NHL Postpones the Rest of Its Season As a New Reality Takes Over the Sports World

On Thursday, commissioner Gary Bettman followed the NBA’s lead and announced that the NHL would suspend all activities

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’ve recently been revisiting a few works of apocalyptic fiction—you know, just as a quick break from the crushing enormity of our reality—to see how they compare to today’s world. Judging by many tweets I’ve seen, I’m far from the only one engaging in this questionable form of self-care. There’s Severance, with its outbreak of disease, supply chain issues with China, and even a tiny reference to the Utah Jazz. World War Z explores the efficacy of various nations’ responses to a zombie crisis, not unlike all of the recent articles examining how South Korea and Italy have handled COVID-19. Contagion scolds against touching faces and features Gwyneth Paltrow being misleading in a way that is detrimental to people’s health. Outbreak mostly just makes me miss the heyday of Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo and reading The Hot Zone on summer vacation.

And then there’s Station Eleven, the celebrated literary novel by Emily St. John Mandel. The book revolves around a deadly respiratory virus called the Georgia Flu, and offers up this relatable glimpse of a man who has touched down at an airport just as shit is, globally, hitting the fan:

Crowds had gathered beneath the television monitors. Clark decided that whatever they were looking at, he couldn’t face it without a cup of tea. He assumed it was a terrorist attack. He bought a cup of Earl Grey tea at a kiosk, and took his time adding the milk. This is the last time I’ll stir milk into my tea without knowing what happened, he thought, wistful in advance for the present moment, and went to stand with the crowd beneath a television that was tuned to CNN.

This is how every day feels now—every few hours, lately. I get shaken by what I’ve seen on TV and computer screens, then almost immediately steel myself for what’s to come. I even had my own stir-the-milk-slowly moment Wednesday night as I uneasily celebrated New York Ranger center Mika Zibanejad’s 11th goal in the past six games, fully aware that it was probably the last time I’d be seeing him, them, anyone play for awhile. By the time NHL commissioner Gary Bettman followed the NBA’s lead and announced on Thursday that the NHL season would be postponed, nothing about the decision was a surprise.

What was a surprise, perhaps, was how quickly the situation evolved. Barely 36 hours before the league decided to close up shop, the Philadelphia Flyers were packing in a crowd so defiant and rowdy that goalie Carter Hart approvingly remarked: “I don’t think we really care about coronavirus the way other people do.” His teammate, Shayne Gostisbehere put it more simply: “It’s Philly, bro.”

But it wasn’t just Philly with that attitude. When California’s Santa Clara county recommended shutting down all large gatherings and events last Thursday, the San Jose Sharks played a home game later that night. (The county revised their recommendation into an order after that.) In Columbus, the Blue Jackets did the same thing. (Speaking of blue jackets, none of this can even be considered a North American phenomenon: just look at the way a French mayor defended a recent Smurf rally with a blithe “We must not stop living!” message.)

The NHL is no stranger to infectious diseases; in 1919, the Stanley Cup Final was cancelled before the series’ deciding game after a number of players were infected with Spanish Flu. (Montreal player Joe Hall was killed by the virus, while manager George Kennedy struggled to ever truly recover and died a few years later.) And in 2014, several NHL stars—including Sidney Crosby—came down with the mumps, a situation that at the time was mined for comedy but which in hindsight looks like a lesson. I didn’t know then that I would now be so wistful for discussion of chipmunk cheeks.

“This was another thing that was hard to explain years later,” writes Mandel in Station Eleven, describing how quickly the novel’s pandemic took over its universe. “[B]ut up until that morning the Georgia Flu had seemed quite distant, especially if one happened to not be on social media.” In our real world, time and space have felt similarly contorted, creating an almost dreamlike cognitive dissonance. And as our broader society’s discussion of the coronavirus has changed from skepticism to resolve, so too has the general vibe in the sports world. First, it was keep everything the same, but the media have to stand eight feet away from the players; then, keep everything the same, but no fans; and later, hey, wouldn’t it be funny if each team could have ONE fan, though? On Wednesday, the Las Vegas Knights’ Reilly Smith cracked wise about his former team to reporters: “I played in an empty building for a couple years in Florida so I’m used to it,” he chirped. It only took a day for every building in the league to become truly unoccupied, indefinitely.

It feels impossible to foresee what comes next, to answer all the questions that are swirling around. ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski had a tree-falls-in-the-forest question to ponder: If someone won a Cup in an empty arena, he tweeted, “does Bettman still get booed?” But will there even be a Cup? The NHL hopes so, and has reportedly asked teams to look into arena availability during the summer. Will teams’ “event cancellation” insurance policies kick in to lessen the blow to their bottom line? Different league, but the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban said on CNBC this morning that he learned his team’s policy will not cover him for something like this, so I’m guessing that’s likely the case for plenty of NHL franchises. Will team and arena staff be taken care of during this stoppage? Unlikely; during the 2004 NHL lockout, former Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan paid out of his own pocket for the training and equipment staff’s health insurance when the organization paused paying for their coverage.

One of the three final NHL contests that took place on Wednesday night was a resumption of a game that had been stopped a few weeks back after Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester had a freak cardiac episode and collapsed on the bench. At the game, the team’s medical staff and trainers were honored for their work in saving Bouwmeester’s life, and cheered by an appreciative crowd that really ought to have not been in the arena at all. But now all of that has been swept out like an uneven playoff opponent; the next round of matchups has team names like Suspended. Canceled. Postponed.

From tennis to motor sports, from overseas futbol to college lacrosse, everyone has finally gulped down their cold, milky tea, gathered to watch the news, and realized that the most vital athletic soundbite these days is no longer “take things one day at a time” (though we should!) or even “we need to execute as a team” (which we must!) but a strange new slogan: “flatten the curve!” In some other context, at some other time, this would sound like some Bauer hockey stick marketing copy. Instead, it’s our world’s newest and biggest and scariest competitive mantra, a cliché that must not go out of style anytime soon, the driving theme of a story that still has barely begun.