First leagues cancel season
by Martin Merk|11 MAR 2020
The top leagues in Germany and Austria had to cancel their season.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) does not only affect international hockey tournaments in March that had to be cancelled but also hit domestic play in many hockey countries. The outbreak has forced the premature end of the season in several professional leagues including the German DEL, the Austria-based cross-border league EBEL and the Asia League. On Wednesday Poland and Slovakia followed with cancellations.

The Asia League was the first professional league to declare a premature end of the season. Two weeks ago it cancelled the final series between the regular-season winner from the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin and Korean team Anyang Halla. With the Republic of Korea being one of the most affected countries, playing at home and travelling to Russia didn’t seem like a feasible possibility, therefore the final was cancelled “considering the safety of customers, players and related parties”.

It is the second time in the 17-year-old history of the league that the season ended just before the final series. In 2011 the finals were cancelled following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that hit Japanese finalist Tohoku Free Blades and Anyang Halla while both teams were preparing for the first game in in northeast Japan.

On Tuesday evening the cross-border league EBEL with eight teams from Austria and one each from neighbouring countries Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy announced the premature end of the season following new measures by the Austrian government. Until then most games had been played under normal circumstances except for the playoff series between Bolzano (ITA) and Znojmo (CZE) due to recent restrictions at home as well as travel restrictions in the Czech Republic for the Italian team. With now also Austrian clubs affected, the league has come to a premature end.

“10th March 2020 is a sad day for clubs, players, officials and in particular for the many fans,” said league manager Christian Feichtinger. “We experience an exceptional situation that hit many areas of our lives. Even though the decision hurts, we saw it as our responsibility to make our contribution to return to normality as soon as possible. The decision to cancel the championship was taken together by the league board and the club representatives. A continuation of the championship in front of empty stands would not have been an option for us because our sport lives from emotions and the sensational atmosphere in the arenas.”

At the level below, the Alps Hockey League with other teams from Austria and Italy as well as the top Slovenian teams, the season was interrupted with a next meeting on Friday deciding about how to proceed. In Italy, the most struck European country, events at the national level are now entirely forbidden and sports have come to a standstill. The playoffs of the Italian Hockey League with the best teams not competing in the multinational leagues were cancelled.

Only half an hour after the bad news from Vienna, Germany’s top league DEL followed with the same decision. Also in Germany sporting events were mostly held with spectators, but new rules limiting games with fans changed that. The DEL as well as the second-tier DEL2 therefore both announced the premature end of the season without a champion. The reason was new recommendation at federal level for events that caused several states to forbid events with more than 1,000 participants.

“We are incredibly sorry for all clubs, partners and in particular the fans in entire Germany that we had to take this decision. However, due to the current development we have the duty to deal responsibly with the situation. We as DEL put the health of our fans, players and employees in focus,” said league manager Gernot Tripcke.

These have been the first pro leagues that saw themselves forced to stop playing. In both Austria and Germany it is the first time since World War II in the 1940s that no national ice hockey champion has been determined.

On Wednesday Poland and Slovakia joined the list.

The quarter-finals in the PHL have been completed according to schedule but after a meeting today and following a new government decision on events it was unanimously agreed to cancel the season before the start of the semi-finals.

On Monday the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation decided following government decisions to stop competitions and exhibition games until at least 23 March and also recommended clubs not to hold practices. On Wednesday an update followed after a meeting of the club in the top league that decided to terminate the season. The remaining rounds of the regular season as well as the playoffs won’t be played and no champion will be determined.

The coronavirus epidemic hasn’t hit all European leagues.

In Northern Europe for instance, the top leagues in Finland and Sweden have continued the games according to schedule and with fans while in Norway the playoffs have been suspended for the time being. The Danish Metal Ligaen had to cancel the playoffs due to the government’s recommendation to limit events with fans and will instead play a single-round-robin tournament with all nine teams and just 14 games to determine the national champion with the top-four teams of the regular season getting 4, 3, 2 and 1 bonus point respectively. This tournament shall begin “as soon as it is possible to play ice hockey again with spectators” and was seen as the most solid solution for all clubs to limit the financial losses during this crisis.

Further east in the Kontinental Hockey League only Chinese club Kunlun Red Star has been affected. After their last game on home ice on 22 January in Beijing, the team played its last regular-season home games in Russia, same for the organization’s women’s team, farm team and junior team in the Russian league system. The home games of the Russian teams (as well as Jokerit Helsinki from Finland and Barys from the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan) in the last playoff round have been played in full arenas since the coronavirus crisis hasn’t hit Russia as badly as other countries.

Also the Elite Ice Hockey League in the United Kingdom operates according to the usual schedule and with spectators same as the leagues in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Ukraine, the BeNeLiga in Belgium and the Netherlands, and the Hungarian-Romanian Erste Liga.

Beside the leagues that ended their season also other leagues in Central Europe have been hit.

The Czech Extraliga started the playoffs in empty arenas.

In Switzerland the top-three leagues were halted while amateur, junior and women’s leagues continued operations. The third-tier league will start the final series on Thursday with attendance limits while on Friday the fate of the top-two leagues will be decided. Swiss media speculates whether the playoffs will start next week in empty arenas or not at all following statements from club representatives. The last two rounds of the regular season in the National League were completed in empty arenas.

In France the quarter-final between Amiens and Mulhouse was effected and delayed because no games were allowed in Mulhouse as an affected region while the authorities in Amiens didn’t allow Mulhouse to play in their city for the same reason. As a consequence Game 6 and 7 continue on neutral ice at the national ice sports centre in Cergy-Pontoise without fans. As of the semi-finals the Ligue Magnus will be suspended until 17 march while discussing an adapted playoff schedule and monitoring the situation and recommendations from local governments.

In Spain the league will continue the season in empty arenas following a recent government decree.

Also in North America the coronavirus situation starts hitting professional leagues. Due to a ban on mass gatherings enacted by Santa Clara County in California until the end of the March, three NHL home games of the San Jose Sharks are affected as well as two AHL games of the affiliate San Jose Barracuda.

The NHL and the Sharks “are working together to determine an appropriate course of action for home games through the end of the month.” The Sharks stated: “We will be reviewing each scheduled event due to take place for the rest of the month and provide an update in the coming days. We appreciate the understanding and patience of our fans, guests and partners during this unprecedented time.”

In the meantime, the season of the National Women’s Hockey League will come to a regular end with Friday’s Isobel Cup Final on Friday night between home team Boston Pride and the Minnesota Whitecaps.

Previously also the International Ice Hockey Federation had to cancel several tournaments of the World Championship program including the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship after discussions with Hockey Canada and the government of the province of Nova Scotia as well as several men’s, women’s and under-18 events in lower divisions.

Also all 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia tournaments planned in February and March have been previously cancelled and this week also the last scheduled event of the competition, the men’s tournament in Singapore that had been scheduled for late April.