STANLEY CUP CHAMPION POSTPONED

There will be no fretting about the state of the Toronto Maple Leafs defence for now. No worrying about losing a playoff spot to the Florida Panthers, of all teams. No rooting for Auston Matthews to break Rick Vaive’s club record for goals.

It’s all on hold. All of it.

The NHL put its season on “pause” Thursday, doing its part to combat the deadly spread of COVID-19. The Leafs joined the Raptors, Blue Jays, Marlies, Toronto FC and just about everybody else as leagues around the world shut down temporarily in the face of the coronavirus.

The NHL, AHL, MLB and MLS were among the leagues that followed the NBA’s lead in suspending play.

The hope is that hockey will return — in the words of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — when it is “appropriate and prudent.” Will it be in time to crown a 2020 Stanley Cup champion? And will other events be affected? Answers are not easily found given the fluidity of an unprecedented situation.

Locally, it’s a tough blow for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the arenas and stadiums it controls, TV partners in Sportsnet and TSN, and the people employed by them.

It is believed the NHL has asked teams to book arenas through the end of July, which raises questions about the draft, set for June 24 and 25 in Montreal, and free agency, set to open July 1.

One imagines there will be a cut-off date, much like the 2004-05 lockout, where the NHL determined Feb. 16 was the day after which the season couldn’t be saved. Good luck predicting when a pandemic will pass.

If you’re a fan holding a ticket, hold on. Maybe the game will be played. Maybe there will be a refund.

Teams were awaiting direction from the league on what they should instruct players, who have been told to go home. It appears there will be no team-organized practices.

Normally in the off-season, players organize unofficial group skates. Just how involved teams can be is in question, since the players are not likely to get paid during the hiatus.

Any lengthy time off might require a small training camp — two or three days — to get things going again. Will the NHL play the full season? Will it start the playoffs instead, based on points percentage? It all appears to be on the table.

The Leafs have 12 games left and are 36-25-9 for 81 points, or a .579 points percentage. The Panthers, with 13 games left, are 35-26-8 for 78 points, or .565 points percentage. Either way, the Leafs are in third place in the Atlantic Division.

“Like you, we have many questions about what’s to come in the future,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor this situation and will remain in contact with Toronto Public Health, Public Health Agency of Canada and the National Hockey League. We will provide relevant team updates as they become available.”

No matter what happens, there will be an asterisk beside this season. The momentum or chemistry that teams had been building, and the grooves some players found themselves in, might vanish. On the positive side, if the season resumes in a month or so, many teams will get injured players back, like Jake Muzzin in Toronto and Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay.

This is uncharted territory for the sports world at large and the NHL in particular. There are some bracing for the season to be cancelled altogether at a later date. That would mean Matthews would be stuck at 47 goals. The Twitter fights over William Nylander would have to wait until next year. And the Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought would extend to 53 years and counting.

Indeed, there could be no Stanley Cup champion for the third time in league history. No Cup was awarded in 2005 after a season-long lockout. And no Cup was awarded in 1919 because of the Spanish Flu, back when the NHL champion played the Pacific Coast League champion for the trophy.

Would the Boston Bruins hold a parade — at a safe distance, of course — with the Presidents’ Trophy for leading the league in points at the time of the shutdown?

The league has suspended play four times before: two lockout-shortened seasons (1994-95, 2012-13), one (2004-05) cancelled altogether, and there was an in-season strike (1992) which postponed 30 games.

The league and teams will have many issues to deal with, like if and how staff and arena personnel get paid. League revenue will be adversely affected and whether the sport rebounds will have an effect on hockey-related revenue and the salary cap. Teams such as the Leafs, counting on a high cap next year, could face a squeeze even with the players they have under salary already.

The league is also in ongoing talks with the NHL Players’ Association for an extension of its collective agreement, set to expire in 2022. While talks have been going well, with things such as international hockey being sticking points, the effect of the virus could bring forward ideas and positions that had not been considered before.

But for now there is unity, with everyone citing public health.

“It is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time,” Bettman said in his prepared statement. “We will continue to monitor all the appropriate medical advice, and we will encourage our players and other members of the NHL community to take all reasonable precautions, including by self-quarantine.”