VANCOUVER – It lacked the striking visual drama and powerful aura of history conveyed by last summer’s two-day protest by National Hockey League players who used their Stanley Cup Playoffs stage to shine a spotlight on systemic racism.
But the league’s postponement Friday of the Vancouver Canucks’ return from the most dangerous COVID-19 outbreak of the pandemic season was another example of players driving change.
A difference from last summer, when players from all four teams remaining in the Western Conference playoff bubble literally stood in solidarity with Ryan Reaves of the Vegas Golden Knights, is that there is a lot of unhappiness from opponents regarding the Canucks.
The frustration is not only over ever-changing schedules that affect others in the Canadian division during the playoff race, but a sense that the Canucks organization hasn’t taken responsibility for a player breaking “strongly recommended” NHL guidelines by dining out in public and then passing the coronavirus to teammates who may or may not have been adhering to other safety measures such as basic mask-wearing.
But while it’s easy to say that someone who has lung cancer should never have smoked, the cause of illness cannot lessen the thoroughness and compassion of the treatment.
Whatever the cause of the Canucks’ outbreak, COVID-19’s decimation of the roster was swift and inarguable. It became clear this week that it was impossible for the team to safely begin after a single practice and three weeks of inactivity a revised schedule of 19 games in 31 days.
The Canucks decided Thursday morning to keep their arena closed to the media, so reporters couldn’t see if that one “full practice” even occurred as players emerging from COVID protocol also underwent medical and physical screening.
But the NHL, which initially refused a team request to delay the Canucks’ resumption of play, postponed Friday’s home game against the Edmonton Oilers about two hours before the visiting team was supposed to fly to Vancouver.
This official announcement was immediately followed by reports that Saturday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs would also be postponed. As of late Thursday afternoon, there was no word from the NHL whether the Canucks and Leafs would play only their other scheduled game on Monday or make up Saturday’s game on Sunday and play twice.
Either way, the Canucks would get at least another couple of the days – Friday and Saturday – to test their legs and lungs amid their ongoing battle to recover from the coronavirus. This extra time is all players wanted.
The Canucks never actually threatened not to play Friday; they just needed winger J.T. Miller to be his blunt, discomforting, honest self when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday and said the revised schedule was “dangerous” and the NHL’s goal of making player safety the top priority was “almost impossible to achieve with what they have asked us to do here on our return.”
Like his team, Miller is an unsympathetic figure among opponents.
But it was impossible to question the sincerity and logic in his assertions, which generated national attention and elevated the issue of his teammates’ well-being against the obvious financial interests of the NHL, its Players’ Association and, yes, Canucks ownership in completing a 56-game season.
Miller said: “This is a very extreme scenario, and it's dangerous to a lot of our players, so I want to make sure that our priorities are in the right spot.”
The NHLPA held a conference call Wednesday night with Canucks players to hear their concerns.
None of the return-to-play protocols that the NHL and PA agreed to before this season were changed on Thursday. Players still need to pass the same cardiac screening and progress through several stages of physical exertion so that no one goes straight from the league’s COVID list and into an NHL game.
What changed Thursday is that the players were heard.
A few contacted by Sportsnet described the additional preparation time before facing the Maple Leafs as “huge.” Not surprisingly, after Wednesday’s Miller bomb, none was made available to the media to speak on the record.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly noted in an email to Sportsnet in the early days of the outbreak that “there’s never a one-size-fits-all solution.”
In the early-season outbreaks most closely resembling the one in Vancouver, the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils each went two weeks between games and upon their return were given revised schedules that looked remarkably similar in their first month to that of the Canucks.
But there are a couple of key differences. The NHL is now in its sprint to the finish line, the pace and intensity of the competition organically higher than it was when inactive New Jersey and Buffalo players returned one month into the season. And the Canucks’ outbreak was worsened by COVID-19’s P.1 variant, which general manager Jim Benning confirmed Thursday to The Province newspaper. Variants were not around much in North America when the season started in January but are now driving a massive third wave in Canada. The long-term effects of P.1, which originated in Brazil, are less known and thus less predictable than the original strain of COVID-19.
One size doesn’t fit all. The Canucks got sicker than any team this season. Whatever mistakes caused it should not dictate the safety of their return.
Players needed a little more time to recover, and the NHL gave it to them. As it should.