‘Safety comes first’ as Canucks navigate more COVID-19 postponements

The Hockey Central panel discusses the latest updates on the COVID-19 disruption across the NHL.

VANCOUVER — On the day the Vancouver Canucks had their first games postponed due to COVID, president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford said he’d be in favour of more targeted testing like the National Football League is undertaking if it can be done safely and helps teams play a full 82-game season.

He also made it clear that although only Saturday’s home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Sunday’s versus the Arizona Coyotes have been postponed, the Canucks are uncomfortable about a one-game trip to play the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday due to the possibility of players getting stuck quarantining in the U.S. during Christmas.

Rutherford’s team added defenceman Tyler Myers to its COVID-19 protocol list on Saturday morning, making it six Canucks players in quarantine, with the possibility of further positive tests coming in later in the day.

The National Hockey League’s weekend began with the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators being “shut down” through Christmas due to outbreaks. The Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers were already shut down.

“I wasn’t totally surprised,” Rutherford said when asked about a morning call from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly informing him of the postponements. “I was a little bit disappointed. I know that a lot of people came from out of town for this game (against Toronto). I feel bad for those fans that made those arrangements.

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“From a team point of view, this was going to be a really good test for us. The Maple Leafs are one of the top teams in the league and we would have got a good look at how our team responded against them, so we’re disappointed. But safety comes first — the safety of the players, safety the fans — and I think this is the right decision.”

The Canucks are 6-0 since head coach Travis Green and general manager Jim Benning were fired nearly two weeks ago, and the Maple Leafs’ annual visit to Vancouver is typically one of the most anticipated games of the season for fans.

The postponement came as the NFL announced it would end mandatory weekly coronavirus testing for players who are fully vaccinated and display no symptoms of COVID-19. Earlier this week, the football league decided that even players who test positive can fully return if they are asymptomatic for 24 hours and pass both PCR and rapid antigen tests.

Asked only about the new testing protocols, Rutherford said: “I don’t understand it enough. I try to follow the doctors and the so-called experts that we watch on TV, and some of them are getting it right, some of them aren’t. I don’t know (but) I’m certainly open to it. I would like to see us play a full season and figure out a way to do that. But for me, safety comes first. If we can find a way to do it the way the NFL is doing it and everybody feels comfortable and it’s a safe way to do it, then, yeah, I’m all for it.”

Rutherford said he has spoken to all the Canucks players who trickled into COVID-19 protocol since Monday: defencemen Luke Schenn, Tucker Poolman, Brad Hunt and Myers, and forwards Juho Lammikko and Tyler Motte. Assistant coach Jason King is also in protocol.

Rutherford said the only symptoms displayed by any of them are “very mild.” On Thursday, coach Bruce Boudreau described the symptoms as similar to a cold.

To bolster organizational depth, the Canucks signed minor-league defenceman Ashton Sautner to an NHL contract.

Rutherford emphasized that the organization is operating fully, except for this weekend’s postponements, and can practise.

He said the decision to play or not is entirely with the league, but he indicated the Canucks will not be comfortable given the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the league if they’re asked to play in California on Tuesday.

The Canucks had a one-game trip to San Jose on Thursday, when they won 5-2 and flew home post-game with all of their players and staff.

Motte went into COVID protocol the next day.

“I feel very fortunate,” Rutherford said. “The players really weren’t comfortable with going and (the possibility of) getting stuck there. And I’m sure that will be part of the decision for this game going to San Jose, especially at this time of the year. So yeah, we feel very fortunate that our players got back safe.”

Whenever the Leafs game is made up, the Canucks could still be out millions in revenue. The province has re-instituted a 50 per cent capacity limit at Rogers Arena starting on Monday.

Rutherford said it is his understanding that the team’s season-ticket holders will be given priority seating under the new guidelines.

The team’s final pre-Christmas game is Thursday at home against the Anaheim Ducks.

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