VANCOUVER — Given two more days to prepare for the worst month of their hockey careers, the Vancouver Canucks will have a full lineup when they end an unprecedented 24-day layoff Sunday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They don’t know who will be coaching (bench boss Travis Green was among the hardest hit by the organization’s COVID-19 outbreak) or who will be playing (except injured star Elias Pettersson won’t), but at least the Canucks will have a team. They wouldn’t have had one Friday had the NHL not revised Vancouver’s schedule a second time and pushed back its re-entry into the stretch drive for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With 19 games in 32 days, the Canucks may well finish a regular season that has been officially declared a disaster while the top four teams in the Canadian division are playing playoff games.
After a year in which the NHL thought it had seen everything, it turned out nobody had seen anything like the Canucks’ COVID-19 outbreak, which was made exceptional – and especially dangerous – because it was driven by the aggressive P.1 variant.
None of the league’s earlier outbreaks, including those similar in scope and duration to the Canucks’ crisis, were caused by any of the coronavirus variants that have built a gigantic third wave in Canada.
A Canucks' official described it this week like this: 10 days into the NHL’s earlier major outbreaks, nearly all the players involved had recovered enough to resume training; 10 days into the P.1 variant outbreak in Vancouver, not only were a lot of players still sick but a few were actually getting worse.
Green still has not returned to Rogers Arena, but general manager Jim Benning said Friday that Green might be able to run practice on Saturday. We may never know because the Canucks have closed their practices to the media, although Benning and captain Bo Horvat were available to reporters Friday on Zoom calls.
Benning used a toned-down version of the 10-day coronavirus comparison during his press conference.
“It's something that obviously the NHL has never seen before and, I guess. . . the world has really never seen it before either,” Horvat said of P.1, which originated in Brazil and was rare in North America when the NHL season began but has lately turned Metro Vancouver into a global hot spot for the variant. “It's going to take some time to get the right protocols in place to deal with stuff like this.
“I've had the flu before and a lot of people have on this team, and it doesn't hit you like a normal flu. I'm just being honest and, obviously, speaking from personal experience. It's not something you want to get, and it's not something that you want to see your family go through either.”
Despite self-isolating in the basement of his home, Horvat said he passed the virus on to his wife, Holly. The couple’s nine-month-old son, Gunnar, has not been tested, Bo said.
“The thing with this virus is that it affects everybody so differently, and you're not sure how it's going to affect you on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I think mentally it's draining that way because one day you feel better and the next day you don't, and you're back to square one again. It was taxing on a lot of guys, especially when families started getting it.”
It was partly out of concern for family that Canucks winger J.T. Miller spoke out Wednesday about the “dangerous” schedule the NHL – with support from the NHL Players’ Association – had given the Canucks, saying five games in seven nights starting with back-to-backs Friday and Saturday were not safe for players.
Miller’s comments reverberated around the hockey world, led to a virtual team meeting that night with the NHLPA and schedule revisions Thursday and Friday.
Horvat made it clear Friday that Miller spoke for everyone on the team.
“We were collectively talking about it and just, obviously, reaching out to our teammates to see how they were feeling. . . and if they felt like they were going to be ready to go on Friday,” Horvat said. “And a lot of guys, obviously, were feeling the same way as J.T. was. He expressed how he felt and basically he spoke on behalf of the team about how we all felt. I think it was needed and kind of got the ball rolling.”
Without identifying them, Benning said Friday there are still three players sick enough to be ruled out of the Canucks’ return. The only ones remaining on the NHL’s COVID Protocol List, which is based on the timing but not severity of the illness, are winger Jake Virtanen and defenceman Nate Schmidt.
But numerous players are still struggling with their health, and all will need to regain full fitness, making it impossible to accurately project the Canucks’ lineup. Some who play Sunday may be unable to play Tuesday in the rematch against Toronto.
The Canucks on Friday recalled defencemen Ashton Sautner and Brogan Rafferty on an emergency basis. Another blue-liner, Jack Rathbone, has been summoned from the Utica Comets but must fulfill a seven-day travel quarantine. Winger Matthew Highmore and defenceman Madison Bowey are still serving their travel quarantines after being acquired by the Canucks at Monday’s trade deadline.
Winger Tanner Pearson is expected to return from the injured list, but Pettersson, out since March 2 with a reported wrist injury, may be gone for the season after seeing a specialist on Wednesday.
“He's going to continue to rehab, but we don't have a timeline yet as to when he's going to be back — if he's going to be back at all,” Benning said.
It was more bad news in a season full of it for the Canucks.
“These are world-class athletes that we're talking about and some of them were buckled getting through this virus,” Benning said. “A lot of the family members, wives and kids ended up testing positive through all this. For the players to get it was one thing, but then when they're dealing with family members, too, it just made it really hard. We've tried to support the players and their families through all of this and get them through all this and I'm hoping now that we're kind of on the other side of it and we can keep moving forward.”