VANCOUVER — Travis Green probably knew he was in trouble when he had to stop worrying about his players in order to start worrying about himself.
The Vancouver Canucks’ coach, one of the most severely stricken members of the National Hockey League team during its P.1-variant COVID-19 outbreak, finally returned to the ice Saturday to run a full practice at Rogers Arena. He plans to coach Sunday when the Canucks emerge from the most serious health crisis of the NHL season with a home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver’s first game since March 24.
Only a couple of days ago, Green said, he wasn’t sure he could do it.
“There was a point where I think I was worried about our players a lot,” he told reporters in his first Zoom call since the Canucks’ crisis began March 31. “And then I was pretty sick, and worried just to get through each day. Selfishly, maybe my focus turned to myself a little bit, and getting a little bit worried. But I think when you play on a team everyone's worried about everyone.
"We've got a few guys that are still out that you really feel for because I have a bit of an idea of how they're feeling. You know when you coach a team and you care about your players so much, it's almost like your kids. You want to make them feel better, and you can't.”
The seriousness of Green’s condition was apparent in the medical team he thanked on Saturday. These included Canucks physician Dr. Jim Bovard and head medical trainer Jon Sanderson, but also doctors John Yee and Chris Carsten.
Dr. Carsten is head of respiratory medicine at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Yee is head of thoracic surgery, and surgical director of lung transplantation at Vancouver General Hospital.
Anyone still think COVID-19 isn’t serious?
“There's been a lot of people that had a lot of support for our group,” said Green, 50, explaining the raspiness of his voice as a post-practice condition. “I want to just take a moment to thank them. As far as the virus itself, I don't want to dive into it too deeply, into my situation personally. But if I could tell the people of BC: Continue to do the right things. Listen to the health authorities. We're not quite through this yet. And you don't want to get this.
"I can say that personally. It wasn't easy at times and it's not a joke. Don't let your guard down, even though it's hard. I urge people to do that because you don't want to get it, you don't want other people to get it, you don't want loved ones to get it.”
Outside of medical-team visits, Green fought the coronavirus alone. His family spends hockey season at home in Orange County, where Travis and Sheree Green’s youngest son, Brody, who has autism, benefits from routine and support at school.
That physical separation was probably both a blessing and a curse the last two weeks. A few Canucks players, including Brandon Sutter on Saturday, have talked about the anguish of passing COVID-19 on to family members. But Sutter also mentioned the benefit of being with his wife, who is 23 weeks pregnant, and young children and being able to support his family as it battled the virus together.
Green was alone. He can see Rogers Arena from his Olympic Village neighbourhood, but didn’t return to his workplace until mid-week.
He said it was important to him that he be back for his players and their return to competition on Sunday.
“There's been a lot of people that have gone through a lot and are coming back to play, and I wanted to make sure that I was there,” Green said. “If I didn't feel like I could do it, though, I wouldn't do it. There was a time, probably just a couple days ago, where I really didn't believe I would be. I'm thankful that I've been able to come and be at the rink the last few days and get on the ice today and it will be good to coach tomorrow.
“I had flu-like symptoms, I wasn't feeling great for four or five days. I thought I was coming out of it, and then it got a lot worse, probably for another five, six days. And at that point, I was a little worried. The physical part is hard, but also the mental part is hard when you're going through this as well. I'm thankful that I've had some people that helped me and also a lot of support from a lot of people in the hockey world, which is amazingly small. The people that have reached out to me, I really appreciated it.”
Green said starting goalie Thatcher Demko, winger Tyler Motte and rookie defenceman Olli Juolevi, among the 21 players who tested positive for the coronavirus, aren’t yet healthy enough to play.
Winger Jake Virtanen and defencemen Nate Schmidt, the last to go into quarantine, still haven’t been cleared from the NHL COVID Protocol List. Forward Matthew Highmore and defenceman Madison Bowey, acquired at the NHL trade deadline on Monday, are still serving their one-week travel quarantines but may be available to play against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday.
Still, the Canucks will have a full NHL lineup on Sunday, something that would have been impossible had Vancouver players not pushed the league and its Players’ Association to delay the team’s return from Friday’s scheduled re-start.
The Canucks will play their final 19 games over 32 days, finishing its season on May 19 more than a week after most of the NHL completes the 56-game regular season
“I think it has been real important that we've had the extra days of practice for our team,” Green said. “Obviously, they've gone through a lot in the last few weeks. But I think they've needed (more time) physically... but maybe more importantly mentally. Just to get through a few more days and feel good about themselves and get through a practice where you're not struggling to get through practice, I think that's been vital for our group.
“As far as expectations... there's been a lot to talk, you know, how can you expect to do this or that? Hey, we're here to win tomorrow. That's our mindset, that's how our group feels, and I wouldn't want it any other way.”