It was March 11, 2020, and the Winnipeg Jets were holding their morning skate before a game at the Edmonton Oilers. Coach Paul Maurice had just stepped onto the ice when his captain, Blake Wheeler, skated over with a concerned expression.
"You think they're going to shut us down tonight?" asked Wheeler.
"No," Maurice responded, his mind squarely on the night's opponent. "I think the Oilers are going to play Connor McDavid against ya."
"No, I mean, are they going to shut down the game tonight?" Wheeler said. "You know, because of the COVID?"
Maurice wasn't clued into the news at that point. He hadn't seen the cases rising in North America after the coronavirus pandemic swept through Europe. He hadn't heard about the cities in the U.S. that were shutting down mass gatherings of people, and in the process shutting down local sporting events. The idea that the 2019-20 NHL season could be interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic one month before the Stanley Cup playoffs was far from his mind. At least it was until the first intermission that night.
The Jets had played a solid first period. Maurice was walking off the bench to the dressing room when he was stopped in his tracks, as he was informed that the entire NBA had been shut down because of a positive test for a Utah Jazz player.
Word soon spread through the Winnipeg and Edmonton dressing rooms. "Our players knew, and their players knew," Maurice said. "And the game of hockey just disappeared after that. It was a disaster for the rest of the night. Their minds quickly went to [the shutdown]."
The Jets flew to Calgary after the game to prepare for a matchup with the Flames. "It never crossed my mind that I wouldn't be coaching that weekend. I thought it was going to be a two- or three-day thing. They'd give us a new plan, and away we go," Maurice recalled.
"And now we're coming up on a year."
The NHL paused its season on March 12, 2020. It was a decision weeks in the making, pushed into action when other pro sports began to shutter their operations. The next year would see the NHL take dramatic measures to continue playing games, including "bubble" cities with empty arenas, regular-season and playoff realignment and an incalculable amount of testing for COVID-19. But it all started there, on March 12, when hockey hit the pause button. We spoke with league and NHLPA executives, general managers and players about what they remembered about the pause and what the benefit of hindsight has shown them.
"It's almost hard to believe we've been at this for a year and we're still not done," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN. "In some respects, the year has gone in the blink of an eye. In other respects, it has seemed like it's been forever."