Canucks expect to play full 56-game schedule despite COVID-19 outbreak

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The Vancouver Canucks expect to complete the 56-game regular season because their health is improving after an outbreak of a COVID-19 variant.

The Canucks have had 21 players and four staff members test positive, and the NHL has postponed six of their games through Saturday.

Primary team physician Jim Bovard said Friday cases had peaked, and he and head athletic therapist Jon Sanderson were scheduled to meet with doctors at the NHL and NHL Players’ Association on Friday to discuss when they could reopen their facilities and return to play.

“I think for the most part our players are on the other side of it,” general manager Jim Benning said. “We have still family members that are getting sick, and I think the players worry about that.”

Bovard said public health officials have been working closely with the Canucks and will make the final call.

“Public health [officials] basically have to see that it’s safe,” Bovard said. “That’s their priority. Is it safe from an infectious disease point of view to open up? I owe that to each of my patients. All the other staff members, all the other players and everyone else who’s going to come into work in our facility want to know that they’re coming to work in a safe place.

“So we will be looking at, what does that mean, what does that look like, and then have a plan put together and submit that to public health [officials], and only if they give us the green light we will then proceed and open up.”

Benning said he doesn’t expect the Canucks to be active before the NHL Trade Deadline on Monday at 3 p.m. ET mainly because of how the virus has run through the players and their families.

“I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do at this point in time,” Benning said.

Benning said he thinks the Canucks will have the majority of their players back when they return to play, “outside of two or three guys,” and the NHL could extend the end of the schedule to allow more days for them to play their games.

Vancouver has 19 games left and is tied with the Calgary Flames for fifth in the seven-team Scotia North Division, eight points behind the fourth-place Montreal Canadiens, who also have 19 games remaining. The regular season is scheduled to end May 11. The top four teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Benning said no one has said he doesn’t want to finish the season.

“Once we’re healthy and we’re ready to play, I expect our players are going to be competitive here down the stretch,” Benning said. “We’ve got a hard-working group, a team that has a lot of pride. So, our schedule will be hard, we’re going to have a lot of games in a short period of time, but we’ll just see how we feel and how we come out of this and see where it goes.”

Bovard said the initial case was not the result of someone breaking protocols. 

“We know that the individual had gone to a place within the guidelines, and that place subsequently was discovered to have cases of COVID, and that’s how it got into our organization,” Bovard said. “And we’ve made it very clear within our group that 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.”

Bovard said this is a product of the virus sweeping through the Vancouver community. The Canucks have experienced the same range of symptoms as the general population, nothing unusual. No one has been hospitalized.

The Canucks have confirmed it is a variant of COVID-19 but determining what kind of variant is complex. Bovard will forward information to doctors at the NHL and NHLPA, who will analyze it with infectious disease experts and determine if changes to protocols should be made.

“This virus is tricky, it’s changing, and we need to change with it,” Bovard said. “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, and so we’ve just got to know what we know now and then make sure we learn from what’s happened and implement that, and that’s really where the focus will be.”

There have been 52 games postponed since the NHL season began Jan. 13, including 47 because of COVID-19 protocol. Five games have been postponed because of weather-related issues.

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