VANCOUVER – Like a shepherd gathering his wary flock, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning is trying via conference calls to get enough players to return for the team to re-open its training facilities.
But with the quarantine clock ticking toward the National Hockey League’s July 10 target for opening training camps ahead of a planned 24-team summer Stanley Cup tournament, there is still only a small handful of Canucks in British Columbia and Rogers Arena remains closed.
“We’re expecting our players to start heading back here this week,” Benning told Sportsnet on Tuesday. “We’ll see when they show up, but that’s our expectations. I don’t know how many will come back (this week). It’s voluntary to come back.”
Benning said the Canucks had a conference call last week involving players, coaches, training staff and management, and there will be another call Wednesday.
“We had a conference call last Thursday and talked to the players, listened to their concerns, tried to answer their questions from the information we have,” he explained. “Just (tried) to update them as to where we’re at right now and tried to answer their questions.
“We’re going to have another conference call tomorrow and do the same thing, and we’ll just see where it goes.”
For most of the NHL shutdown, the only healthy Canucks in Metro Vancouver have been Alex Edler, Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher. Jake Virtanen and Tyler Myers were a four-hour drive away in the Okanagan.
There are three Canucks in Sweden, eight in the United States and the rest are scattered across Canada. Anyone arriving in Canada from abroad faces the mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Although the federal government and provincial health authorities have agreed to broaden quarantine guidelines to allow teams to train together, Benning said it’s unclear how players will quarantine together when their arrival dates in Canada differ.
And although there are no quarantine requirements for domestic travellers listed on the Government of Canada’s website covering the novel coronavirus, Benning said it’s possible players returning to Vancouver on domestic commercial flights will face a shorter quarantine period.
“We’re still figuring that stuff out,” Benning said. “Our U.S. and European players have to do a two-week quarantine, but they can quarantine as a group and keep inside the bubble: hotel to the rink, back to the hotel. But it seems like there’s daily announcements coming from the league.
“If someone comes late and joins the group, does the quarantine start all over again? Those are still questions we’re trying to figure out answers for so we can explain it to our guys. It changes by the day. We’re trying to figure out if we can have two different (quarantine) groups. And does everyone need to be inside of the bubble?”
With such uncertainty, it’s understandable players are hesitant to leave home, where nearly all have secured ice time and established training routines. And the COVID-19 outbreak last week within the Tampa Bay Lightning and other high-profile coronavirus cases in sports don’t make the idea of jumping on a plane and leaving home and family more enticing.
“It worries me as a person in society, as a dad, as a son,” Benning said. “It’s upsetting, right? Of course, it worries me. As far as from a sports perspective, we don’t want to do anything that’s not safe for our fans or our players or all the people we have working around the team. We’re just listening to our health officials. The government agencies are directing us. We’re only able to do what they tell us.”
NHL players are not required to report to their teams until training camp and, as the league continues to negotiate with its players’ association, may have the choice to opt-out of summer hockey.
Benning said the Rogers Arena ice can be installed and all facilities made ready for use in about three days. He said the arena will be open – and subject to the NHL’s strict Phase 2 safety guidelines, which include testing and monitoring – as soon as there are enough players to form a small training group.
Head coach Travis Green has returned from his Southern California home, and the coaching staff is planning for the players’ return, Benning said.