Canucks’ Jim Benning: Fighting virus ‘more important’ than hockey

Jim-Benning-Vancouver-Canucks

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – In these unprecedented days, the status of organized sports seems to be changing, like the impact of the coronavirus itself, almost by the hour. Yesterday’s plan could be replaced three times before tomorrow’s.

But one of the biggest game-changers for the National Hockey League since the global pandemic nightmare became real for professional sports last week occurred Sunday night when the United States government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended cancelling all events with 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.

An eight-week ban on sporting events makes it extremely difficult for the NHL and National Basketball Association to complete their suspended seasons, and made the American Hockey League’s decision on Monday afternoon to disperse its players predictable and logical.

“We’re sending our players home,” Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning said of his minor-league team in Utica, N.Y. “The Canadian guys are driving back to Canada and the American guys are driving home, and the European guys like (Olli) Juolevi and (Lukas) Jasek are flying home.

“It seems like things are changing by the hour.”

Earlier Monday, the NHL directed its teams to allow their 700 players to travel home if they choose, with the stipulation that upon arrival all should resume their self-quarantine until March 27.

Any Canadians coming home from American teams will begin another two-week quarantine period set by the Canadian government, which on Monday closed its borders to anyone from outside Canada and the U.S.

Until the CDC edict late Sunday, the NHL was keeping its players in the cities in which they played and there was hope, however faint, that hockey might return after a month.

Fairly typical of an NHL workforce, the Canucks have players from six provinces, five states and Sweden. Only three players — defencemen Troy Stecher (Richmond) and Jordie Benn (Victoria), and forward Jake Virtanen (Abbotsford) — are from B.C., although Texas-born defenceman Tyler Myers considers Kelowna home.

Benning said the Canucks’ team services department was working Monday with players to get them home if they wish to leave Vancouver. The communications department has refused so far to facilitate interviews with players.

“I think they’re like the rest of us; they’ve never seen anything like this,” Benning said of his players. “They’re concerned.”

Benning said he has spoken with team captain and player rep Bo Horvat to try to answer players’ questions and concerns.

The Canucks announced Sunday that a full-time employee in their offices next to Rogers Arena had tested positive for COVID-19. The statement from Chief Operating Officer Trent Carroll emphasized that the employee “does not have a fan-facing role and is not in contact with the players, hockey operations personnel or Rogers Arena part-time events staff.”

Assistant general manager Chris Gear said Monday that three employees who work closely with the sick staffer, whose condition is improving at home, tested negative Monday for the coronavirus.

Rare good news these days.

The team also announced late Monday that the club, along with the Toptable restaurant group owned by Canucks managing owner Francesco Aquilini, would donate 2,000 pounds of perishable food to The Salvation Army and Greater Vancouver Food Bank.

“The biggest part of my job seems to be getting paid to worry,” Benning said from home. “We tried (this season) to do everything we could to be competitive. We felt like we were taking the next step. Then all of a sudden, something like this comes along and you realize there are more important issues. At the end of the day, the health of our fans and players and community is a lot more important than winning and losing hockey games.

“We don’t want more people to get sick. If we can look after this (coronavirus) and the government and the league deem it safe, we’ll try to figure out some way to get back playing. But we’re like everybody else; I don’t know when.”

Unlike the third-tier ECHL, which on Sunday cancelled the remainder of its season, the American League’s statement did not include the C-word, only that the “indefinite suspension of AHL play will not be lifted before May.”

“It’s not inconsistent with what the NHL is doing,” Gear said. “We’ve got (NHL) guys going back to Sweden, guys going back to the U.S. That creates its own set of challenges. Every time we address one question, there seem to be two more.”

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