The Vancouver Canucks are recovering from the NHL’s worst COVID-19 outbreak and believe they can complete the pandemic-condensed season.
An outbreak has ripped through the team over the past week and a half with 25 people — 21 players and four members of the coaching staff — testing positive, and one additional player being deemed a close contact.
General manager Jim Benning told reporters Friday that many of the players are feeling better.
“I think our players, for the most part, our players are on the other side of it,” he said. “We still have family members that are getting sick and I think the players worry about that.”
The athletes have had a “whole range” of COVID-19 symptoms, said team physician Dr. Jim Bovard, but no one has needed to be hospitalized.
The Canucks confirmed on Wednesday that a variant is involved in the outbreak. Full genome sequencing is being conducted by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to determine which specific variant.
The team previously said an ongoing investigation by Vancouver Coastal Health and contract tracing have found that the outbreak was sparked by a single unnamed individual picking up the infection in a “community setting, which has since been identified by public health as a public exposure location.
“Rapid spread of infection throughout the team indicates a link between contacts and the primary case,” the Canucks said in a statement.
Bovard said the individual picked up the virus somewhere that was within the NHL and provincial protocols.
“There’s no culprit here other than the COVID virus itself. Everybody’s been working incredibly hard in the last year to avoid getting it and in spite of their best efforts, this can happen,” he said.
“It’s not an accident that it happened when it did given what’s going on in the broader community.”
B.C. announced a record 1,293 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday.
“What’s happening with us is really just a microcosm of what’s going on in the broader community,” Bovard said.
The team’s doctors and staff are set to meet with health officials Friday to discuss when the Canucks can reopen their facilities and get players back on the ice. Bovard noted that the final decision will be up to health officials.
The Canucks (16-18-3) have not played since March 24 when they dropped a 5-1 decision to the Winnipeg Jets in Vancouver.
The team then had a six-day break and was set to take on the Calgary Flames on March 31. The game was postponed shortly before puck drop when a player and a coach tested positive for COVID-19. Another player had tested positive the day before.
Nineteen Canucks players were listed on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list Thursday, including forwards Travis Boyd, Jalen Chatfield, Adam Gaudette, Jayce Hawryluk, Nils Hoglander, Bo Horvat, Zack MacEwen, Marc Michaelis, Tyler Motte, Antoine Roussel, Brandon Sutter and Jake Virtanen, defencemen Alex Edler, Travis Hamonic, Quinn Hughes, Tyler Myers and Nate Schmidt, and goalies Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby.
A player on the COVID-19 protocol list has not necessarily tested positive. Players who are in self-isolation after travelling or who’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive, for example, are also on the list.
The list does not include team staff or players not on the active roster, including those on the taxi squad.
The Canucks have seen six games postponed since the outbreak began, but Benning said he still expects to play 56 games this season.
“We’ll work closely with the NHL to try and figure out a schedule,” he said, adding that he believes the current regular-season end date of May 8 could be pushed back.
Once the team has been cleared to reopen its facilities, players will all go through physicals to determine who’ll be available to play once games are back on the schedule.
Benning said he expects the majority of the impacted players to be back on the ice when the rink reopens, and will decide in the next few days whether there’s a need to call up any additional players.
No one has said they want to opt out of the remainder of the season, Benning said.
“I know talking to players, they’re worried about their families and stuff. And we’ll get through all that,” he said. “But these guys, they’re competitive guys and they want to get back playing again when they know that they’re going to be safe, their families are going to be safe.
“I haven’t heard anybody as of right now who doesn’t want to continue finishing off the season.”
With all the Canucks have been through in recent weeks, the GM doesn’t expect to be busy come the NHL’s trade deadline on Monday.
“We still have a few days here, we’ll take calls, talk to other GMs, and see if there’s something out there that makes sense,” he said as a cellphone rang on his desk.
Putting players through the stress of a trade right wouldn’t be ideal from “the human side of things,” Benning said.
“They’ve dealt with a lot here the last few weeks,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do at this point in time.”