When coronavirus cancels your hockey season


After finishing third in the regular season, the Straubing Tigers were well-positioned to challenge for Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga championship. It would have been the first one in franchise history for Straubing, a city of fewer than 48,000 people in lower Bavaria whose hockey team consistently has one of the smallest budgets in the DEL.

The Tigers’ season ended this week. Not with them hoisting a trophy. Not because they were defeated and eliminated. Their season ended the way the season ended for all 14 German pro hockey teams: because of a global pandemic.

On Tuesday, the DEL became one of the first professional sports leagues in the world to cancel in-season due to the coronavirus outbreak. Some international leagues have postponed games or opted to play them in empty arenas and stadiums for an uncertain time period. The DEL was “forced to end the current season prematurely with immediate effect” after local German governments banned gatherings with more than 1,000 attendees.

“I think it’s devastating for a lot of fans,” Tigers goalie Jeff Zatkoff told ESPN.

The DEL announced that its top four teams in the regular season — EHC Red Bull München, Adler Mannheim, Straubing Tigers and Eisbären Berlin — will be its representatives in next season’s European champions’ league. But for the first time in the league’s 26 seasons of operation, there will be no German hockey champion crowned this year.

“It feels … weird. You didn’t lose, so you should be playing. But at the same time, everyone is on the same page. We understand the health concerns and that it was something out of our control,” Zatkoff said.

“A lot of teams probably feel that a championship was taken from them. There were four teams this year that legitimately thought they had a chance to win. For a town like ours, you don’t know how often that chance is going to come around,” he said. “But we qualified for champions league next year, which is the first time that’s happened [for this franchise]. I mean, it’s still been a successful year, but you play for the playoffs. All these games are just to get into the dance. So now it’s like you’ve got your ticket, but they’re turning you away at the door.”

You remember Zatkoff, right? The Detroit native played 48 NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings from 2013 to 2017, including a win in Game 1 of the Penguins’ first-round playoff series against the Rangers in 2016.

“I’m Mr. Game 1,” he said with a laugh. “After we lost the first game of our next two series against Washington and Tampa, I went to [coach Mike Sullivan] before the Stanley Cup Final and told him I was available for Game 1 against the Sharks.”

Zatkoff has been the primary goalie the past two seasons in Straubing. Although he was excited for the playoffs this season, he couldn’t help but notice how other European hockey leagues were impacted by the outbreak over the past month. The Swiss National League played games in empty buildings at the end of its regular season and canceled its postseason due to a government ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

“I thought we were going to keep playing for a while. I texted my general manager a few weeks ago, when the Swiss made the announcement that they were postponing games, and asked, ‘What’s going on here? Are we getting shut down?’ And he’s like, ‘no.’ Germany had been pretty vocal about not shutting down businesses and not closing the borders or any of that,” Zatkoff said.

“We finished our last game on Sunday. The next day, we got a text saying the Bavarian government had shut down [mass gatherings]. At the time, we’re thinking maybe we’re going to play ghost games in empty arenas. By 2:30 p.m. the following day, they had canceled everything. No ghost games. Just cancellation.”

The DEL is a gate-revenue-driven league. Zatkoff theorized that “ghost games” in empty arenas weren’t a viable financial option, as opposed to outright cancellation. “I don’t know if they have the financial backing to run a game in an arena with no fans, at those operating costs,” he said. “For a small club like where I play, it’s not worth it financially for the owners to play a ghost game. They can’t handle it.”

There’s economic impact for the players, too. The DEL has a 10-team postseason. Almost every player gets a set amount of bonus money for each playoff game. Straubing was guaranteed at least two, for example. There are also bonuses for advancing to later rounds of the playoffs.

“I think that money would be significant for some guys,” Zatkoff said. “There’s pretty big fluctuation in salary between the younger guys and the guys that have been around in the league for a while. For the guys just getting into the league, that’s a decent chunk of money they’re missing.”

That’s one reason the German league players were hoping the season could be salvaged. “I think there are guys that wanted to do the empty arena thing,” Zatkoff said. “Some guys were hoping they would do, like, a week-long tournament that was really quick, almost like an abbreviated world championship.”

Like many things with the coronavirus outbreak, what’s happening in European hockey is a harbinger of what’s to come in North America. Already, the Columbus Blue Jackets are slated to stage regular-season games in front of nearly empty arenas. The San Jose Sharks are expected to have “ghost games” when they return to Santa Clara. In both cases, as in Germany, the local government’s orders were the catalyst for the decision.

The NHL has anticipated that municipalities would begin doing this. If the league’s hand were to be forced, it would comply, but it hasn’t been looking to be the catalyst itself; there was insurance money on the line, and there are too many liability considerations.

But as the NBA and NCAA react to the outbreak, so too will the NHL. Extraordinary times should call for extraordinary considerations. What if the season is postponed for a few weeks? What if the NHL tinkers with its playoff format? Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe wondered if a truncated season schedule could result in best-of-five series for the first few rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs before finishing with seven-game series.

Everything should be on the table, and hopefully there’s an option that allows the NHL to provide satisfying closure on the 2019-20 season while playing a role in slowing the outbreak.

Or, perhaps, there is no satisfying closure for NHL teams. There hasn’t been for hockey leagues in Austria, Poland, Norway, Slovakia, Germany and other places that opted to cancel the rest of their seasons. Those players don’t get to write the final chapters of their stories this season. A team such as the Straubing Tigers will have paid the physical price for 52 games while sweating through hundreds of hours of practice and preparation, just to have it all lead to … nothing.

That is difficult for an athlete to process.

“We had meetings today that were exit interviews. Like we had lost out in the playoffs. But we didn’t even play a playoff game,” Zatkoff said.

He laughed to himself.

“At least there’s no way you can underachieve in the playoffs this year.”

Jersey Fouls

From the New York Rangers:

Taj Gibson of the New York Knicks was honored by his MSG-mates the Rangers with a personalized jersey. Now, Jersey Foul rules state that a personalized jersey given to an individual by a team is not a Foul, as they are unofficially “part of the team.” But the question here is whether that exception is superseded by the fact that the Rangers gave Taj Gibson the only number put out of circulation by every NHL team, retired for a player who in fact wore it with the Rangers. To that we say, “Yes, it is very much superseded and totally a Foul.”

Three things about playing in empty arenas

1. As of this writing, the possibility of the NHL playing games in empty arenas was still on the table, so let’s briefly explore this premise, which I’m fascinated by from an aesthetic viewpoint. As San Jose Sharks coach Bob Boughner noted, the lack of fans on home ice changes the entire approach for players: “You’re going to have to find ways to get your own adrenaline going. It’ll feel like a preseason game, in a way. At the end of the day, you have to concentrate on the opponent and game plan. But you’re going to have to find a way to rally, and find your own way to motivate without the fans and the noise.”

But what if there was crowd noise?

Think back to all of those sitcoms we used to watch that had a laugh track to help viewers know how and when to react in a scene. (What, you thought “Gilligan’s Island” was filmed before a live studio audience?) Why not do the same with an NHL game in an empty barn? Give the arena DJ a giant soundboard with all sorts of reactions: the “oh!” of a shot that just misses the net; the simultaneous “yeah!” when a goal is scored; the slowly building roar when the noise-o-meter is on the Jumbotron before a faceoff. Hit the “boo!” button when the opponent does anything of consequence. Have the chants ready to pipe in; heck, maybe even “ref, you suck!” for a penalty.

Maybe that’ll get the adrenaline going.

2. I just wanted to take a moment to clear up something on the media side of things. When we talk or tweet about changes in the access policy during the coronavirus crisis, we’re not whining or playing the victim. We get it. We’re just trying to explain what’s going on or chronicle these extraordinary times for posterity and give you a sense of how things have changed for us behind the scenes.

Now, there’s been a lot said about the media being kept out of dressing rooms. We’ve heard all the snark about us losing out on asking questions like “How did it feel to score that goal?” and other inanity. Which is insulting, frankly, because it’s the local TV reporters who ask those questions, not the writers (and we do appreciate that they’re the ones who get those out of the way). What’s mostly frustrating about this is how much people don’t understand the value of an open dressing room for the media. It’s where season-long relationships can be established for players and beat writers. It’s where stories that can’t really be reported from a news conference — sensitive stories or quirky ones — get done. And after games, it can be where the raw emotion of a sport is displayed in a way it never would at a news conference 30 minutes later. As Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds eloquently put it:

A word about the players and the dressing room. Sure, we’re annoying and ask questions they don’t like and step on their sacred logo in the middle of the room — again, is it too much to ask teams to put the thing they don’t want stepped on anywhere that isn’t where feet are? But a lot of these guys would 100 percent prefer to sit in their stall with a small group of reporters than to stand at a podium or sit at a table in front of every TV camera and every reporter. That’s a factor, too.

3. Finally, if the NHL played a game in an empty arena, we assume every home team power play would spectacularly fail without fans telling the players when to shoot.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Amazing show this week featuring a lengthy interview with Patrick Burke of the Department of Player Safety, who addresses all your pressing questions about why suspensions happen or don’t happen, Evander Kane‘s criticism and whether George Parros should step down. That, plus NHL team superlatives and much more! Rate, review and subscribe here!

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Caution

Kudos to Santa Clara County in California for being the first home to a pro sports team to formally ban public gatherings. Kudos to the International Ice Hockey Federation for proactively canceling several tournaments around the world. Kudos to the NBA for leading the way on postponing a season in North America. And kudos — hopefully — to every team, league and federation that will accommodate fans left with tickets and nowhere to use them. These are unprecedented times and uncharted waters. The sooner these decisions are made, the safer.

Losers: Fans of Teams USA and Canada

Your heart goes out to the pro women’s hockey players on the Dream Gap Tour, whose barnstorming series of games was in preparation for another couple of classic showdowns at the IIHF world championships, which were canceled. The best rivalry in hockey will have to wait another year before settling global supremacy again.

Winner: Mika Zibanejad

There are hot streaks and then there’s whatever has gotten into Mika Zibanejad. The Rangers center has an absolutely preposterous 22 goals in his last 21 games to give him a career-high 41 on the season.

Loser: Jack Hughes

On the other end of the spectrum, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft has one goal in his last 26 games and four points in that span. He’s gone scoreless in his last eight games. He’s 18 years old. He’ll get better. But this rookie season should be wiped from the memory banks.

Winner: Sam Simon

The Fort Collins High School goalie made 84 saves in a five-overtime state championship game loss. That tied the national record, originally set in 1987 by Jamey Ramsey of Flint Northern (Michigan). On the game-winning goal, Simon said: “It’s a save I could make all night long, I just didn’t make it. I kind of let them down a little bit.” Um, no you did not, sir.

Loser: Capitals goaltending

In the Caps’ last 19 games, Braden Holtby is 7-5-2 with an .898 save percentage and a 3.15 goals-against average, while Ilya Samsonov is 1-4-1 with an .873 save percentage and a 4.11 GAA. Granted, what the team in front of them is doing plays a major role here. But this is pretty bad.

Winner: Chara’s good wood

While very much a penalty, Zdeno Chara‘s new bit where he slashes the stick of an opponent into orbit is pretty fantastic. He’s done it twice now this season, to Sean Couturier of the Flyers and Mikhail Sergachev of the Lightning.

Loser: Bat-and-switch

At first, the Colorado Avalanche appeared to have done something awesome and innovative in making Rockies legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Larry Walker their emergency goaltender for a game Sunday night. Alas, he was actually the “honorary emergency goalie,” which apparently is a thing.

Puck Headlines

The Toronto Maple Leafs were among the pro teams using a charter plane company that had its operating license revoked after “conducting dozens of unauthorized charter flights and using unqualified pilots.”

Wild story from the ECHL, as a former Fort Wayne Komets player accused the team of “using his signature without his consent” on a form that placed him on injured reserve.

“New Hampshire youth hockey coach Brian Pouliot fights referee on ice, gets fired from organization.”

Fun story about how Devils coach Alain Nasreddine scored the first and only goal of his NHL career on an assist from a player he coached against recently: Sidney Crosby.

Jason Pominville: From 15-year NHL vet to a dad who plays in a rec league.”

Finally, the one you’ve been waiting for. Prepare thy mullets for the 2020 Minnesota State High School All Hockey Hair Team:

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

Down Goes Brown explains his idea for fixing the NHL loser point: “Under my system, a team can only earn a loser point if they began the day outside of a playoff spot.” ($)

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Great feature here from Emily on Dominik Kubalik and his journey to rookie stardom.

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