Canucks return to play on Sunday following COVID-19 outbreak
VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks will return to play this Sunday as they take on the Toronto Maple Leafs at Rogers Arena.
The team hasn’t played a game since March 24. Instead, it’s been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that swept through at least 21 players and five members of the coaching staff.
The Canucks originally stated the COVID-19 cases involved a variant, but would not specify which one. On Friday, Canucks general manager Jim Benning confirmed players and staff were infected with the P.1 variant.
“It got all of our players really sick. These are world-class athletes that we're talking about and some of them were buckled getting through this virus," he said.
Benning said when compared to other NHL teams that have been hit with COVID-19, the Canucks took longer to bounce back. He attributes the extended recovery to the variant.
Canucks captain Bo Horvat was one of 21 infected players. Testing showed he also gave it to his wife. His nine-month-old son, Gunnar, was not tested for COVID.
“I’ve had the flu before, and so have a lot of other people on this team. It doesn’t hit you like a normal flu does,” Horvat told reporters on Friday. "I’m just being honest with you and speaking from personal experience. It’s not something that you want to get.”
Horvat says he lost weight while sick, but has an appetite now, and is feeling more energized on the ice each day. He and his teammates are ready for a return to action.
“It’s definitely not going to be easy for us, obviously. But these next couple days will be really big for our group to get back into game shape and where we have to be.”
The team was supposed to return to play on Friday, against the Edmonton Oilers. However, following pushback from players, the league decided to postpone the game and give the team two more days of recovery time.
During a press briefing earlier this week, Canucks centreman J.T. Miller said a rushed return to play could be dangerous for the team. Although Miller didn’t test positive for COVID-19, he didn’t feel like he was in game shape, and feared his infected teammates wouldn’t have enough time to recover and restore their physical conditioning.
Horvat says the team was on Miller’s side.
“He had his full teammate's support. All of us were thinking the same thing. We definitely felt like we needed more time and like it was unsafe," he aid.
Ample recovery is crucial for the Canucks, who are now tasked with playing 19 games in just 32 days.
“I do think with the density of the schedule this team is going to be hard-pressed to manage much more than a baseline level of competitiveness against clubs that have not dealt with similar outbreaks and are in rhythm,” says Thomas Drance, senior writer for The Athletic.
Physical fitness aside, Drance says it’s likely the team will need to work on the mental side of the game.
“There’s an awful lot of anxiety that has been riddled throughout this organization as they look to move past this outbreak. That’s all going to come to bear on energy levels, on togetherness, on some of the intangible things that make a hockey team work.”
Benning says it’s too early to set expectations for the Canucks’ remaining games. He’s not looking past Sunday.
“Everything about this whole year, and dealing with COVID, and playing through a pandemic has been hard. But, we’ll do our best, get our players back and healthy, and we’ll go from there.”
With files from The Canadian Press’ Gemma Karstens-Smith