When the Wild’s season would come to an end was already up in the air.
The team was in contention for a playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference race that wouldn’t have been sorted out until the final few games.
Now that finish line — and the Wild’s playoff hopes — are even murkier.
The NHL shut down its season Thursday amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, joining other sports leagues in making an unprecedented move to halt play.
It’s unclear when or how games will resume after the league used the word “paused” in making its announcement.
This decision came down after the league consulted with medical experts and convened its Board of Governors over a conference call. Soon after, other hockey entities — minor leagues, junior leagues and college tournaments — suspended or ended their seasons.
A day earlier, the NBA stopped operations after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, an illness caused by exposure to a novel coronavirus.
That news made it “no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement, since the two leagues share facilities and locker rooms in some cases and “it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point.”
Bettman encouraged players and others affiliated with the NHL to take reasonable precautions, including self-quarantine if needed. But how players spend this downtime is unclear since the NHL didn’t specify whether travel or player-organized practices are permitted.
“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,” the statement continued. “Until then, we thank NHL fans for your patience and hope you stay healthy.”
The Wild was set to host the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday evening at Xcel Energy Center before traveling to Philadelphia on Friday to take on the Flyers Saturday afternoon.
Players, coaches and team officials were not made available for comment.
Ahead of the NHL’s announcement, the team called off its morning skate and media availability. This was a leaguewide edict while the hockey world awaited official word from the NHL on its next step. But after the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night, it felt inevitable the NHL would follow suit.
Already, the league was preparing for games without fans since San Jose and Columbus agreed to follow local bans on large gatherings.
Like other teams around the league, the Wild issued a statement supporting the NHL’s decision and said it will continue to work closely with the NHL and local, state and national authorities on its safety measures.
“The health and safety of our community, including our guests, players and staff is of the utmost importance to us,” the statement read.
In the meantime, the Wild’s future is uncertain.
At the time of the stoppage, the Wild was 35-27-7 with 77 points, only one shy from a playoff spot. After its last game Sunday in Anaheim, a 5-4 overtime win, the team was sitting in the first wild-card seed, but it was bumped during an ensuing three-day break in the schedule.
Although the Wild was jostling with the likes of Winnipeg, Nashville and Vancouver for one of two wild-card berths, the club’s forecast was encouraging.
Of its remaining 13 games, four were vs. non-playoff teams. The Wild was victorious earlier this season against all but three of the 11 opponents, and seven matchups were on the road, where the group was on a 7-1 run. The Wild was 8-3 in its last 11 games overall.
On Wednesday, the Wild returned to practice at Tria Rink in St. Paul amid mostly normal conditions.
One of the most obvious changes, aside from the addition of hand sanitizer, was media access — which was held in an adjacent room to the ice instead of inside the locker room.
The NHL, in conjunction with other pro leagues, announced Monday that locker rooms would be open only to players and essential team employees until further notice, but the Wild began holding its media availability outside the locker room last weekend during its road trip in California.
While interim coach Dean Evason talked Wednesday of the precautions the Wild was taking amid the outbreak, the focus was still very much on hockey and the team’s playoff push.
If and when the NHL’s season does restart, it’s unclear if the regular season resumes where it left off, whether an abridged schedule takes place, or the playoffs start immediately — a possibility that would eliminate the Wild. Even if the standings were organized by points percentage — since not all teams have played the same amount of games — the Wild (. 558) would still fall outside the top eight in the West.
Any scenario, however, could be complicated by arena availability.
The Wild’s season was supposed to end April 4 in Nashville, and the playoffs were scheduled to begin April 8.
Only twice in the NHL’s history has the league not handed out the Stanley Cup: in 2005 after the lockout wiped out the season, and in 1919 because of the Spanish flu.