One year later, Blackhawks reflect on March 11, 2020 — the night COVID-19 took over

The Hawks beat the Sharks 6-2 that night while the NBA shut down its season and the U.S. banned European travel. On Thursday, one year later, the Hawks played the Stars and reflected on how much society and hockey have changed since.

SHARE One year later, Blackhawks reflect on March 11, 2020 — the night COVID-19 took over
Brandon Hagel, making his NHL debut, skates in the Blackhawks-Sharks game on March 11, 2020.

Brandon Hagel, making his NHL debut, skates in the Blackhawks-Sharks game on March 11, 2020.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On March 11, 2020, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane were led out of the Blackhawks’ locker room after a 6-2 home victory over the Sharks.

On the way to interviews, they glanced at the TV and learned the shocking news the public had gradually absorbed over the last few hours: The NBA had stopped its season after Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, then-President Donald Trump suspended travel from Europe to the U.S. and the pandemic began to take hold.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” a shellshocked Keith said. “It’s tough to imagine playing games in an empty building. I mean, the fans are what make the game.”

“I guess things are getting pretty real around here,” Kane added. “We’ve been told to wash our hands, don’t touch our face and drink a lot of water. Hopefully, that will be enough.”

A year later, as the Hawks prepared to face the Stars on Thursday — marking the halfway point of a shortened 56-game season in which the Hawks have yet to host a single fan at the United Center — their comments seem absurdly naive to the reality they and the rest of the world have come to know since.

But from the other end of the lens, it was difficult then to imagine what this past year would ultimately entail.

“I just remember we had a big win against San Jose,” Kane said this week. “We were a little behind the eight-ball getting into the playoffs, but we had some games coming up we thought we could win and maybe try and go on a run. All of a sudden, you hear all this stuff.

“I don’t think any of us really knew how serious it was at the time. I thought maybe we’d have a couple of days or a week off and get right back at it. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. It was amazing how everything turned on a dime and the world pretty much stopped.”

Although the coronavirus had been talked about for weeks, the suddenness with which it flipped from an abstract concern to a transformative crisis was jarring.

In hockey, a sport whose culture often felt like a bubble apart from society even before COVID-19 bubbles became a thing, that was especially noticeable.

“We were all in shock that day,” Ryan Carpenter said Thursday. “I can’t believe it was a year ago. We were all in shock. And as athletes, you just have such a routine every day. Everything’s planned out . . . with the schedule the coaches have for us. You come to the rink to prepare and focus on the job. Anytime that’s disrupted, it throws you off.”

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An announced crowd of 21,275 attended the Blackhawks-Sharks game on March 11, 2020.

Ben Pope/Sun-Times

That game against the Sharks was the Hawks’ 70th of the 2019-20 season. They had 12 left on the schedule, including a March 13 home date against the lowly Senators that looked like another good chance to win and advance the playoff push.

When the NHL followed the NBA’s precedent on the morning of March 12 and paused the season, that schedule went out the window. But most of the Hawks’ players still believed the stoppage would only last a couple of weeks.

Behind the scenes, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly — who had been consulting with medical advisers and other sports leagues about COVID-19 for a while — suspected that wouldn’t be the case.

The events that happened to transpire in the NBA first, when Gobert’s positive test cancelled a scheduled Jazz-Thunder game in Oklahoma City right before tipoff, were the breaking point.

“We understood that it was likely, at some point, that we were going to have stop operations,” Bettman said Thursday. “I just remember getting home the night [of March 11] and being called and told, ‘Turn on the TV.’ The NBA had a full building and was ready to start a game, and then they had a positive test . . . and they instantaneously were in shutdown mode.

“Bill and I consulted, and we had made the decision that we didn’t want to be in that situation. We didn’t want to have a building full of people. We wanted to be a little proactive here. It was clear that, sooner or later, we were going to have a positive test.”

As the unfiltered scope of the pandemic’s severity set in over the following weeks, destroying all hope of resuming the season in the spring, Hawks players found themselves in the same ocean of anxiety that engulfed all Chicagoans.

“It was such an unknown,” Connor Murphy said. “[There was] a fear of, ‘How do you react? Where can you go?’ ”

One year later, as vaccinations slowly release the COVID’s grip, it looks increasingly plausible the NHL could be mostly back to normal by October for the start of 2021-22 season. Bettman and Daly discussed various aspects of that Thursday.

But even if that proves true, every anniversary of March 11 will bring back memories of one of the strangest nights the Hawks and the hockey world have experienced.

“All our lives have changed over the last year, but ultimately the biggest price is the death toll and all the people who’ve lost loved ones,” Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “Everyone’s hoping we’re near the end here and can keep moving forward.”

“It’s one of those nights,” Daly said, “that is in some respects a blur, but in some respects a very vivid recollection.”

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