Shadow of Canucks’ spring COVID outbreak still lingers ahead of U.S. trip

Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, back right, celebrates with his teammates after Vancouver defeated the Winnipeg Jets during a shootout during an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Friday, December 10, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

VANCOUVER – You didn’t need jolly old St. Nicholas if you were anywhere near Bruce Boudreau at Christmas.

The Vancouver Canucks’ new coach spent the NHL holiday break in the mountains at Whistler – “I nearly fell down one” — where the Santa-like man from the north (Toronto) taped an ebullient Christmas message for fans promising to “kick some ass in 2022.”

Players have reacted to their gregarious, energetic coach by going 6-0 since Boudreau replaced Travis Green three weeks ago. But, as Boudreau said in his social-media message: “6-0 might be OK, but 10-0 is better.”

Boudreau’s optimism and positivity have been a panacea for the Canucks, who played themselves into a very dark place by starting the season 6-14-2.

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They won two of their last three games under Green, but Boudreau has been like rocket fuel to a team that was badly underperforming and needed positivity like a fish needs water.

He had a lengthy meeting with players after Monday’s practice at Rogers Arena.

The traction the Canucks finally generated in December was halted by a schedule break extended for several days by the latest COVID-19 crisis, and despite its longest winning streak in two years, the team remains six points out of a playoff spot.

Beyond the schedule and standings, the shadow from the Canucks’ COVID outbreak last season still hangs menacingly over the team like the ghost of Christmas future standing over Ebenezer Scrooge.

Players are giddy with their recent success, re-energized and suddenly loving their jobs again. But barring further postponements by the NHL, the Canucks are about to embark on a three-game American road trip, starting Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks, in which a positive COVID test for players could mean a multi-day quarantine in their hotel room.

All six players who were in COVID protocol with the Canucks last week are back practising.

“I’ve seen most everything (but) I haven’t been through COVID,” Boudreau, 66, told reporters on his Monday Zoom call. “I didn’t work for the last year and a half. You just learn to roll with the punches, I guess. I mean, we’re anticipating going tomorrow. And until we’re told not to not to go, I assume we’re going. We’re all anxious to go.

“If there’s one team in the NHL, quite frankly, that is overly cautious about the whole COVID situation it would be the Vancouver Canucks for what they went through last year. So I think the players are doing a really good job of staying in their own little bubble and doing what they have to do. Right now, we’re fairly healthy. And hopefully Anaheim is fairly healthy and we can go and play a game.”

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Canucks winger Alex Chiasson, who was added to COVID protocol on Sunday, could be cleared to rejoin the Canucks as soon as Tuesday with another negative test result, Boudreau said. The team is supposed to practise in Vancouver before flying to California – pending their daily test results for the coronavirus.

The Canucks, who have had five games postponed, are scheduled to visit the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday and the Seattle Kraken on Saturday before coming home to play two games next week under a 50-per-cent seating limit at Rogers Arena.

All or none of these games may go as scheduled.

“I think you’re uncomfortable all the time right now,” veteran defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “You don’t really know what’s going on and you’re trying not to think about it too much. Obviously, it was nice that everybody got to be around their families for Christmas. But it is what it is. You take it day by day and see what’s going on. I feel like you can’t really do anything about it.”

Ekman-Larsson identified the real problem a couple of questions later: “It’s not really about hockey, it’s about mental health, too. It tears you down a little bit just thinking about it all the time. You’re supposed to be playing hockey and do good on the ice, and you have to deal with stuff going around COVID. It’s a lot of stuff that is on your mind, but you kind of learn how to live with it and try to not think about it too much.”

Like all teams, especially those that have crossed the international border, the Canucks will worry about COVID a little bit more when they are on the road because of the ramifications of getting sick away from home.

“It would be a lot easier to have everything run smooth and you don’t have to worry about all that stuff,” winger Conor Garland said. “But I just play hockey. I just look at my phone at nine o’clock at night to see what our schedule is for the next day. I guess you could say it’s frustrating, especially having games cancelled where we really wanted to play. Like I said, you just take it day by day and don’t look too far ahead.”

As far as the hockey goes, it’s probably not motivation the Canucks need right now, but realism.

“The biggest thing for me is for the players, with this break, not to get complacent and think that: OK, everything’s roses,” Boudreau said. “We’re still near the bottom of the league. We’re still. . . not anywhere near getting into the playoffs yet. So, if we’re satisfied with what we’ve done, then we’re heading for disaster. We’re hoping with all these (extra) practices that we’ve been able to have that we’re getting better as a team and we’re going to be getting better and not be satisfied.”

Yes, 10-0 is better than 6-0. Even if it probably still wouldn’t put the Canucks in a playoff position.

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