Rise of virus variants has Canucks worried about outbreak worsening

A member of the Vancouver Canucks staff brings the teams bags to their dressing room at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER — The most alarming part about the Vancouver Canucks’ COVID outbreak is that the crisis is still likely to get worse.

News Friday that the number of players entrapped by the coronavirus has swelled to eight extends the frightening trend of an expanding outbreak in the National Hockey League’s Northwest outpost. In consecutive days, the number of Canucks going into COVID protocol has grown from one, to two, to eight. At least one member of the coaching staff has also tested positive.

Players Quinn Hughes, Alex Edler, Braden Holtby, Antoine Roussel and Zack MacEwen were added to the protocol list on Friday, based on Thursday testing and ongoing contact-tracing. Another player, as yet unnamed, has gone into protocol from Vancouver’s taxi squad.

The National Hockey League team has made no public comments since the Canucks’ home game Wednesday against the Calgary Flames was postponed shortly before faceoff, when Vancouver defenceman Travis Hamonic joined forward Adam Gaudette on the protocol list. Gaudette was pulled from practice on Tuesday when results returned 24 hours after Monday’s daily test came back positive.

Privately, there is a lot of concern within the organization that medical evidence suggests more positive tests could follow.

The NHL announced Thursday that the Canucks would not practise until at least Tuesday, nor play again until Thursday. Those target dates are expected to be pushed back as more players get added to the COVID list.

We may never know what strains of the coronavirus have hit the Canucks, but the Vancouver Coastal Health region has become a global hotspot for the highly-transmissible P.1 Brazilian variant.

The Canadian Press reported Thursday that St. Paul’s Hospital, which screens positive samples in the Vancouver area, had identified by Wednesday night 480 confirmed cases of the P.1 variant. This regional total was more than any country outside of Brazil has recorded, the news agency reported.

The Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, less than 90 minutes north of Vancouver, was closed Tuesday after a P.1-dominated outbreak in the host village for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The Brazil variant is 2½ times more transmissible than the most common coronavirus strain and far more likely to afflict people in the 20- to 39-years-old age group – a demographic that encompasses nearly all professional athletes.

The NHL has dealt this season with significant COVID-19 outbreaks in several American cities. But the most serious of these, in Dallas, Buffalo and New Jersey, all occurred in the first month of the season before coronavirus variants, like those originating in Brazil and the United Kingdom, appeared in significant numbers in North America.

That’s partly why this outbreak in April among the Canucks feels more threatening. It also comes with just six weeks left in the NHL’s 56-game truncated season.

“Each situation we have dealt with has involved its own unique facts and circumstances,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Sportsnet in an email on Friday. “So, there’s never a one-size-fits-all solution. I wouldn’t consider this situation to be any more worrisome or concerning than any other. The potential variant aspect and the timing within the season are just two potentially distinguishing facts from some other cases. Nothing more.”

Daly said there has been “no consideration” given to shortening the Canucks’ season by reducing the number of games they’ll play after emerging from their shutdown.

Even if the Canucks resume playing Thursday against the Flames, which seems unlikely, they would need to survive 19 games in 34 days to complete the season. And this assumes the NHL extends Vancouver’s schedule from its original May 8 conclusion to the May 11 cut-off the league has established.

The Canucks, almost hopelessly out of a playoff spot in the Canadian division, have four straight games scheduled against the last-place Ottawa Senators April 22-28. These could easily be eliminated without impacting the integrity of the playoff race.

But the NHL would still have to juggle schedules for the other five teams in the division for the Canucks to play games that week that are more relevant to the standings.

In the most serious outbreaks early in the season, in New Jersey and Buffalo after the teams played each other on consecutive nights Jan. 30 and 31, the Sabres went 14 days without playing and had six games postponed. The Devils were shuttered 15 days and missed seven games. And, by the way, the number of New Jersey players on the protocol list peaked at 19, so the Canucks may have a way to go yet before we know the scope of their outbreak.

If the Canucks don’t play for 15 days dating from Gaudette’s positive test result on Tuesday, their next game wouldn't be until April 14 against the Edmonton Oilers. That would leave only 28 days to play 19 games.

It’s a bad situation. And getting worse.

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