Editor's note: Since the publication of this story, news broke that the NHL will be postponing Friday's game between the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. The latest information available about that postponement can be read here.
VANCOUVER – Professional hockey is hard. Players all say that.
They lose teeth and break bones and literally bleed for the game. It takes bravery to play in the National Hockey League.
As brave as J.T. Miller is, so willing to be first to the corner, to crash the net, slide in front of a slapshot or even fight for a teammate, the most courageous thing the Vancouver Canucks forward has done was speak truth to power on Wednesday when he said his team’s post-COVID schedule is dangerous and counter to the NHL’s stated objective of making players’ safety and their families’ safety the top priority.
Many will frame his 15 minutes of blunt honesty and human fear during a virtual press conference as a blast at the NHL for handing the Canucks, hollowed by the worst COVID-19 outbreak of the pandemic season, a revised schedule of 19 games in 31 nights starting Friday against the Edmonton Oilers.
Don’t be naïve.
The blame for this schedule is shared jointly by the NHL and its Players’ Association, which through its financial partnership with the league also benefits from seeing all contracts fulfilled by the completion of a 56-game schedule by all 31 teams.
And the Canucks, or at least their owners who will lose millions in this season without fans in Canada, are also a third party to the revised schedule that asks Vancouver players to open the hardest month of their careers with five games in seven nights, led off by back-to-back sacrifices against Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
As NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell in a Wednesday email: “The team wants to finish its season. We aren’t twisting arms here. Everything — including resumption date and various other critical aspects of their remaining schedule — was done entirely collaboratively and with Club input and consent.”
It’s business. But it doesn’t make it right.
“It's kind of frustrating if I'm being 100 per cent honest with you,” Miller told reporters in a Zoom call. “We've tried to talk about the number one priority is players’ health and their families' safety, and it's almost impossible to achieve that with what they have asked us to do here on our return.
“I talk to my teammates a lot, and this hasn't been, obviously, that easy. For them to try to come back and play... it's going to be very challenging and not very safe, if you're asking me. And I'm sure there are other people that would agree with that.”
Twenty-five members of the organization, including head coach Travis Green and 19 players from the NHL roster, were ambushed by COVID-19, starting with winger Adam Gaudette’s initial positive result on March 30 near the end of what was supposed to be a six-day schedule break for the Canucks.
All but three of these players – Nils Hoglander, Nate Schmidt and Jake Virtanen – come out of protocol this week and should be available to play Friday against Edmonton and Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, pending mandatory cardiac screening and ramped-up physical activity.
But the team will have only one full practice, on Thursday, before being thrown back into the Canadian Division playoff race against healthy teams already sprinting for the regular-season finish line. The Canucks last played on March 24.
The few players, like Miller, who didn’t get sick have been isolating at home with Rogers Arena closed until two days ago.
“Even for me, skating a couple of times, my lungs are screaming and definitely not in game shape at all right now from sitting around and not doing much,” Miller said. “I couldn't imagine what these guys (who have had COVID) are going to have to go through to get back and be ready to play at a high level. We're playing two of the best players in the entire world on Friday another one of the best teams in the league on Saturday. I never thought I'd be in this scenario in my career.
“I think it's just a little kind of crazy. I know that everybody's got a job to do, but to expect pretty much our entire team to be ready to play on one practice and a pre-game skate is a little bit hard to comprehend. This is going to be a really tough challenge.
“It's unfortunate that we're even in a scenario like this but, like I keep alluding to in my mind, I guess it is our job. We have to be prepared to play. But at the same time. . . guys coming off of three weeks of rest and two weeks of having COVID, one practice isn't even close to near enough time to come back and perform at a high level. Brutally honestly, I think that we're going to need more time than this to come back and play hockey. Even the guys that didn't get it, we're not ready to play.”
But play they will. Daly pointed out to The Hockey News that the Canucks’ schedule is “challenging but certainly not unprecedented.”
The New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres, who suffered outbreaks nearly as big as the Canucks’ after playing each other in a super-spreader doubleheader at the end of January, emerged from similar shutdowns with similar schedules. Buffalo played 19 games in its first 32 days back, while New Jersey had 18 games in 31 days. Of course, the Sabres also then went on an 18-game losing streak while the Devils won their first two games back before going 2-10-2.
The Canucks are planning for attrition. They know that although players will recover from COVID-19 and be well enough to play, some will be unable in their weakened condition to withstand the brutal intensity of the schedule.
Stuck at 16-18-3, the Canucks were 10 points out of playoff spot Wednesday but now have games in hand on the five teams above them in the North Division.
“I hope that people won't take this the wrong way because I'm a very competitive guy and when I go on the ice, I really want to win,” Miller said. “But at the same time, this doesn't have to do with hockey right now for our team. I'm beating a dead horse for saying this so many times, but it's about the health and safety of our players and our players' families and their children. This isn't about making the playoffs for us at this point.
“This doesn't have to do with me not wanting to play there (in the playoffs) or not believing in our team. 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.”