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Four Years After Covid Shutdown, Florida Panthers Back in Dallas

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The AmericanAirlines Center in Dallas sits empty on March 12, 2020. The Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars were scheduled to play that night, but the NHL suspended its season due to Covid-19. Four years later, the Panthers are back in Dallas. They’ll play tonight. // Photo @GeorgeRichards

On March 12, 2020, the Florida Panthers were supposed to play the Dallas Stars at AmericanAirlines Center.

That game never got played.

Four years to the day the NHL and all other sports shut down due to the quickly-spreading COVID-19 virus, the Panthers are back in Dallas.

On Tuesday, the Panthers took their morning skate in Dallas just as they were supposed to do that Thursday morning four years ago.

In 2020, the Panthers had arrived in Dallas on March 10 following a 2-1 win in St. Louis and practiced at a suburban rink.

The NHL had started putting in precautions to keep players a little more isolated because of the threat of quick-spreading virus.

Following that practice near Dallas, coach Joel Quenneville as well as Chris Driedger, MacKenzie Weegar and Sasha Barkov spoke to the media in town to cover the team.

Instead of opening up the locker room, the Panthers set up a backdrop on the far wall of the practice facility; A retractible belt separated the four reporters from the coach and players who came by to talk.

The players and coach stood against the wall as reporters stood six feet back, shouting questions over the din of shots being fired on the ice just a few yards away.

Everyone appeared to be in a good mood; there was a sense of nervousness.

Barkov walked up, looked at the press members behind the bank rope and pulled his shirt up to mask his face.

“You guys,” he said with a smile, “stay back there.”

News had already come out that Columbus and San Jose were being forced to play games in empty arenas. College basketball conference tournaments were being affected and, soon, the NBA would cancel its first game and start a quick snowball effect. 

That Tuesday afternoon, Florida GM Dale Tallon sat in the concession area of the practice facility, grimly staring at a television while sipping on a cup of coffee.

“This,” Tallon said quietly, “is not going to be good.’’

He was not wrong.

The following day, Wednesday March 11, was an off-day for the team.

That night, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 before a game in Oklahoma City.

The Jazz-Thunder game was canceled and, soon enough, the NBA announced it was suspending its season immediately.

Some of Florida’s players were out to dinner and saw the news on televisions by the bar.

Others found out through a group text or by watching TV in their hotel room.

Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau went to the Dallas Mavericks game at the AAC where they were scheduled to play the next day.

It was there that Mavs owner Mark Cuban was famously pictured by ESPN checking his phone and seeing the news about the league putting its season on pause once games which had started were complete.

“Guys on the group chat were like ‘what’s going on?’ I don’t really watch the news too much, so I was getting my information from the team,” Keith Yandle said in 2021.

“There was talk the game in Dallas might not happen, might get pushed back a couple of days. We know what ended up happening. It was definitely some uncertain times. … We thought it would be a day or two, maybe a week.’’

When Ekblad and Huberdeau got back to the team hotel, they ran into some teammates where conversation was focused on what would come next.

If the NBA was putting its season on hold, the players figured, certainly the NHL would do the same.

“We were all sitting on a patio near the hotel and chatting about what the future might hold,” Ekblad said three years ago. 

“We were all putting our two cents in while not knowing a thing about what would transpire the next day much less the coming weeks, months, year. It was a guessing game.

“But it was pretty obvious the NHL was going to follow suit. The message from the team was ‘prepare to play,’ but we had a pretty good idea what was going to happen.”

Quenneville had planned on holding a morning skate. He woke up early as usual and was walking to the arena when the NHL sent word that all practices were cancelled although the league did not officially announce anything until the afternoon.

While everyone wondered what was next, Florida’s equipment staff was already at the Dallas arena packing things up. The Panthers were flying home, much earlier than scheduled.

By mid-afternoon, the league made it official: The NHL would be on hiatus for the immediate future. The Panthers were already in the air heading to Fort Lauderdale.

The NHL put its season on pause, hoping to pick back up in a couple weeks if the spread of the virus slowed.

Weeks turned to months.

Florida panthers

The BB&T Center in Sunrise sits empty during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. // Photo @GeorgeRichards

“I thought it was going to be short-term as well, I remember some of the speculation,” Quenneville said on the one-year anniversary of that game being cancelled. 

“Everyone was saying ‘two weeks, two weeks, two weeks.’ That’s what we kept hearing,’’ Ekblad said. “I felt like it would be much longer.”

By summer, the NHL announced it would resume play and the Panthers would be part of an extended postseason.

The team reported to Coral Springs for a special summer camp in July before flying to Toronto and join the NHL bubble.

Florida was knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoff qualifier in four games by the Islanders and flew back to Lauderdale.

This time, the Florida Panthers season really was over.

Only three players who were in Dallas with the Panthers on March 12, 2020, remain with the team and only two will play tonight.

Ekblad is hurt and will miss the next two weeks; Barkov and Sergei Bobrovsky will play in Dallas.

ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS @ DALLAS STARS

  • When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
  • Where: AmericanAirlines Center, Dallas
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida/ESPN+
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • Last Season: Dallas won 2-0
  • This Season (Panthers Lead 1-0) — At Florida: Panthers 5, Stars 4 (Dec. 6). At Dallas: Tuesday.
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Florida leads 25-21-2, 3 ties
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday @ Carolina, 7 p.m.

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