VANCOUVER – The reason the Vancouver Canucks have been decimated by COVID-19 is not because an individual player made a mistake, but because the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate and found a workplace as vulnerable as others on the West Coast.
Team physician Dr. Jim Bovard, answering questions Friday on Zoom about the worst COVID-19 outbreak of the NHL season, made it clear the Canucks are merely among the victims of the third wave of an ever-changing virus that has been sickening 1,000 people per day in British Columbia since the hockey team shut down last Wednesday.
“It’s not an accident that it occurred when it did with what’s going on in the broader community,” Bovard said in the first press conference the Canucks have staged since the outbreak began. “Just like all the other workplaces, everybody is following and trying to follow (safety guidelines) to the best of their ability, all the protocols in place, and we’re no different in that way. But we work and live in the City of Vancouver.
“There’s no culprit here other than the COVID virus itself. Everybody’s been working incredibly hard in the last year trying to avoid getting it, and in spite of their best efforts, this can happen. What I’m seeing going on here in the organization is not much different than what I’ve seen in my own office with people in all walks of life, all workplaces.”
Nineteen Canucks players, most of their lineup, remain on the NHL’s COVID protocol list. Three players from the team’s taxi squad, three members of the coaching staff and another staff member have also tested positive for the virus.
The outbreak originated with winger Adam Gaudette and a positive test result received partway through a team practice on March 30. The Canucks released a statement earlier this week that there was a “source infection to a single individual obtained in a community setting, which has since been identified by public health as a public exposure location.”
The setting was a Vancouver restaurant. The province allowed interior dining until the same day Gaudette’s COVID test returned positive the day after it was taken.
“I have to say, I’m not surprised,” Bovard said. “I don’t want to sound jaded, but I’ve been dealing with this as a professional for over a year.”
Bovard was part of a virtual summit meeting later Friday between medical officials from the Canucks, NHL and its Players’ Association to discuss the team’s outbreak and pathway back towards playing. Bovard emphasized that the re-opening of Rogers Arena and the Canucks return to the ice ultimately will be determined by provincial and regional health authorities.
He said the Canucks have moved beyond the new-infections phase – the team essentially ran out of healthy players who could test positive – and towards the recovery phase.
“I think, for the most part, our players are on the other side of it,” general manager Jim Benning said. “We have still some family members that are getting sick, and I think the players worry about that. They’re going to discuss today about an opportunity to open up our facilities again, to get our players back skating. And then from there, decide when we’re going start playing games. My conversations with the league are that we’re going to continue with our schedule here at some point and we’re going to play all 56 games.”
The NHL is believed to be targeting next Friday for the Canucks’ return to play. Even if this optimistic target is met, and the league extends the regular season several days beyond its scheduled conclusion on May 11, the Canucks will have only about one month to complete 19 games – a dangerous workload that the NHLPA may object to.
The league may also push games irrelevant to the playoff race, like the four the Canucks have remaining against the last-place Ottawa Senators, so far back they are conducted after the Stanley Cup tournament begins.
Benning’s statement about family members being infected was the first public confirmation that the Canucks’ outbreak goes beyond players and staff.
“There’s been nobody who has needed to be hospitalized to date, so I’m pleased with that,” Bovard said. “It’s been a tough week. Pretty quickly, these players go from being hockey players and some of the most resilient, toughest, well-balanced people on the planet, to suddenly they’re fathers, they’re husbands and they’re sons, they’re brothers, and it takes on a whole different element for them.”
He suggested the coronavirus, and the fundamental importance of people who are sick staying home so they don’t infect others at work, could lead to a culture change in a sport where playing through injuries and illness has always been a “badge of honour.” He likened it to the evolution in NHL culture from earlier generations when players would smoke cigarettes between periods.
“How ridiculous does that look now?” Bovard asked. “It didn’t look unreasonable back then; everybody was smoking. Well, that’s going to be one of the biggest differences, that people have to be aware of infectious diseases… and that applies to everybody. If you’re sick, no matter what you’re sick with, stay home and isolate.
“This virus is tricky. It’s changing and we need to change with it. If we could anticipate what it’s going to do next, our jobs would be way easier. But they’re not. We don’t know what it’s going to do next.”