Don't count on hockey being played any time soon.
The NHL significantly pushed back its timeline of when it can potentially resume playing by several weeks, if not a month or more, as a result of the new coronavirus pandemic.
The league and NHL Players' Association told players Monday they can go home — even outside of North America — and must self-isolate through March 27 while the season is on hold. But the NHL also cautioned that it will not be able to even provide guidance on the potential reopening of team practices for another 45 days, which could push any potential return to play into May.
The new directives come on the heels of the CDC's recommendation against gatherings of 50 or more people in the U.S. for the next eight weeks. The NHL said “depending on world developments," consideration will be given to reopening facilities after the self-quarantine period ends in late March but practices for the 31 teams would not happen late April — at the earliest.
“I think in light of the CDC recommendations, it's hard to foresee that we're looking at much happening here in March or even April, in my opinion,” NHL player agent Jay Grossman said.
That's a major switch from Friday, when the league held out the possibility of players being able to return to team facilities and working out and skating in small groups.
The latest decision leaves open questions as to whether the NHL can complete its regular season, which was suspended Thursday with 189 games remaining, and whether it might have to alter its playoff format to avoid the postseason from pushing into the summer months.
Last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he remained optimistic about resuming play and still awarding the Stanley Cup, which has been handed out every year since 1893 except for 1919 because of the Spanish flu outbreak, and 2005 when a lockout wiped out the entire season.
Though the NHL followed the NBA's lead in suspending its season, Bettman declined to place a time frame on how long the “pause” would last. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver last week said his league's hiatus would likely last at least a month.
“The pause will be until it’s appropriate and prudent and safe to start back up,” Bettman had said. “Nobody knows how long the hiatus may be. Nobody, even the medical community, can predict it with certainty.”
Bettman and NHL and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr each said Friday he was not aware of any player testing positive for coronavirus.
On Monday, Arizona Coyotes defenseman Aaron Ness became the first NHL player publicly known to have been tested for COVID-19. Ness' agent, Neil Sheehy, said results came back negative after his client followed NHL guidelines to seek out testing for flu-like symptoms.
"He never thought he had it to begin with, to be quite honest," Sheehy said. “What happened is the league was saying if you have a sore throat, if you have a runny nose, if you have a cough, call the trainer and don't come to the rink, and so he did that.”
The NHL's new directive in allowing players to return home led to players and coaches scrambling to make travel plans.
In Buffalo, New York, Sabres forward Marcus Johansson initially hoped to travel home to Sweden on a flight out of nearby Toronto. Those plans changed when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the country was shutting its borders except to Canadians and Americans, while also imposing a 14-day self-quarantine to those entering the country.
Johansson was instead attempting to book a flight home through New York City.
In an email to The AP, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said there was little the league could do regarding travel restrictions.
“It’s a consequence of where we find ourselves. Nobody’s fault,” Daly wrote.
The U.S. government has imposed a travel ban from Europe for non-citizens that extends until mid-April. There are currently 233 European players on NHL rosters, including leading scorer Leon Draisaitl from Germany, and there are under contract in the minors. How many might return home is unknown.
“I've spoken to some players who are doing their best to obviously scramble to return to the safest, most comfortable environment that they can get to at this point,” Grossman said.
In the meantime, the American Hockey League followed the NHL in a decision reached by its executive committee on Monday. The 31-team league announced the indefinite suspension of its regular season won't be lifted before May, and was also recommending its teams work on returning players to their primary homes.
Overseas, the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League took a one-week pause during its playoffs to determine a a new format and schedule for its six remaining teams. The decision came after Finland-based Jokerit and Kazakhstan-based Barys Nur-Sultan pulled out of the playoffs amid the pandemic.