As team owner, GM and coach of the Red Deer Rebels, Brent Sutter has lost plenty of sleep worrying about protecting his players from COVID-19.
You can only imagine how much harder it was to learn his son, Vancouver Canucks forward Brandon, has it.
“We FaceTimed last night and he was pretty down and out, feeling pretty sick,” said Sutter via telephone. “Brandon has tested positive and he’s got symptoms — body aches, headaches, chills — just like you have the flu. I guess each guy is different in terms of how it affects you, especially with this Brazilian variant. For younger people to get this sick, it’s scary.”
Scarier still is not knowing if Brandon passed it on to his family before he joined the list of Canucks on the NHL’s COVID Protocol List, which is now 16 players long.
“His wife is pregnant and they have a two-year-old and three-year-old — he’s obviously concerned about them,” said Sutter.
“He wants to make sure they can stay away from this. He’s moved into the basement of his house so he can be separated from them. He’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing. They were just told to get into quarantine and have the wife and kids go down to the rink to get tested every day. There’s a lot to this, what the families have to do now. We’re keeping fingers crossed.”
Sutter said that even though his son is 32, his paternal instincts have him wishing he could be by his side.
“As parents you want to be there to help out. You can’t be, and you’re helpless,” said the longtime NHLer. “In his situation you just want him to be feeling better. As it is with all the players, you’re hoping it doesn’t impact their families in any bad way. I believe from the reports there’s the variant involved. From a parent’s perspective that’s very concerning. For the whole sporting world it’s concerning. It’s a new thing with the variant, it hasn’t been dealt with at the NHL level and what effects they’re going to have coming out is this.”
And no, the effects he’s referring to are not on the Canucks’ schedule and possible return to play this season.
“The biggest concern everyone should have now is for everyone to get safe and healthy again,” said Sutter. “That’s the number one concern. Whatever happens on the hockey side is irrelevant.”
The team has kept quiet on the details of the widespread infections that upped the number of players on the NHL’s COVID Protocol List from 14 to 16 Sunday night. One day earlier, it went from seven to 14. An unnamed member of the team’s coaching staff and a player from the team’s taxi squad have also been added to the list.
“From the guys he talked to, they all have symptoms, but he’s not sure how the whole group is,” said Sutter. “I’m obviously concerned, like everyone else, but when you have your own family involved, it’s scary.”
As a hockey man, Sutter said it’s anyone’s guess on when, or whether, the Canucks might be able to return to play this season.
“I don’t know how long until they can even consider returning to play, or if they can even return in time at all,” said Sutter. “Brandon mentioned they have to be in quarantine for 10 days, and watching Elliotte (Friedman) on TV, it sounds like they have to have negative test results for a few days. They have to practice after that, so you would think it would have to be two or three weeks.
"It’s not like you’re talking two or three guys. If all these guys have been sick and they have to be cap compliant, could the Canucks come back and play? I don’t know how they can do it.”
The NHL had already postponed four Canucks games due to the outbreak, which is the largest for a Canadian team this season. The team’s outbreak is among the largest any professional sports team in North America has faced.
FROM CONCERNED DAD TO CONCERNED COACH
Sutter has spent the last few months trying to shield his Western Hockey League club from Covid with a unique lodging approach that has all his players living in individual box suites at the team’s home arena, Westerner Park Centrium.
It’s a young hockey player’s dream come true, complete with areas to play basketball, ping pong, cornhole and cards while enjoying movie nights on the Jumbotron complete with popcorn, ice cream and late-night pizza delivery.
“Movie nights are pretty good — just like sitting in a theatre but sitting in a big rink with the lights off and their blankets around them, eating popcorn,” laughed Sutter of the unique setup no other junior team has employed.
“Other nights we’ll have the Flames game or the UFC event on. They have it pretty good. It’s like camp, with no contact from the outside. It’s good for them mentally to go through all this together. People forget about that through all this. Trying to give them an environment that was just like home for them in a big mansion.”
With desks and beds donated for each suite, players take turns doing chores, including the serving and cleaning up of dinner.
Bus trips for tobogganing or evening campfire outings at Sutter’s ranch are some of the only excursions outside of road games for a group that has done well to avoid any negative tests.
“You sweat it out when you do testing Wednesday and don’t get test results until Thursday — it’s a sleepless night,” said Sutter.
“You’re in the bubble and if you get it, and we’re all in it together, it could run like wildfire through your group, just like Vancouver. You just pray to God Thursdays everyone tests negative. They’ve all been negative so far. It took a lot of work to set it up, but it has been as good as I could have imagined.”