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NHL players, coaches coping with uncertainty of coronavirus

Season on pause, 'we have never gone through anything like this'

by Tracey Myers @Tramyers_NHL / Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- NHL players and coaches were unsure of the future of their season even before the League announced Thursday that it will pause the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're athletes, we're competitive," San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane said after playing at the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday. "Obviously, we want to get out there, we want to keep playing in front of the fans. But there's more important things to life than sports."

Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett said the concerns go well beyond hockey.

"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," Tippett said after playing the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday. "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."

The League released the following statement from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Thursday:

"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.

"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 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."

The NBA announced Wednesday it was suspending its season after a member of the Utah Jazz tested positive, which caused the postponement of their game at the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Sharks coach Bob Boughner said he learned of the NBA decision between the second and third periods of their game against the Blackhawks.

"Shocking," Boughner said. "No one really knows what to think right now. We're all upset because we lost the game 6-2, and then you look at what everyone else is going through in the world, you've got to remind yourself this is a just a game. There are bigger things going on."

The Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators started their game after the NBA made its announcement.

"Night felt strange, it didn't feel like a normal game," Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan said. "Not as many fans in the stands. Obviously, the players heard the news before about the basketball game, so it was a little bit unemotional. There wasn't any intensity, at least on our behalf I think, until we got scored on and then we realized it was time to play. But a different night for us."

Before the NHL put the season on pause, the Columbus Blue Jackets were scheduled to play the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nationwide Arena on Thursday without fans in response to an order banning mass gatherings in Ohio. The Sharks, responding to a similar ban in Santa Clara County in California, were planning to play their remaining home games this month without fans at SAP Center.  

"Very odd, very surreal," Boughner said of possibly playing in an empty arena. "We definitely would have to find a way to prepare a little differently and get ourselves going. [I was] standing there thinking about that tonight, with the famous national anthem here in Chicago and listening to the crowd and the song and how amazing that whole presentation is. Couldn't imagine coming to Chicago, playing a game and not seeing that. It would be really odd." 

Asked about the potential of the NHL pausing its season, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns said he was not thinking about that.

"I think it's obviously a scary thing," Burns said Wednesday. "It's also why sports is a very important thing. Throughout a lot of tough times in history, sports have been kind of a way for people to get away from that stuff. But like I said, there are a lot smarter people who are dealing with this than us. You'd like to think maybe sports can help people through tough times, scary times. I know where I have to go right now, and that's about it."

The NHL has 189 games remaining. The regular season is scheduled to end April 4, with the Stanley Cup Playoffs starting the week of April 6.

"There is really nothing else we can do. The League is going to have the best interest of the players and the fans and everyone involved in making this league what it is," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. "... You just trust that the information they're getting is going to be relayed and take the proper steps to make sure [of] the safety of everyone." staff writer Tim Campbell and independent correspondents Rick Sadowski and Dan Greenspan contributed to this report

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