The Vancouver Canucks will return to play Sunday against the Toronto Maple Leafs after the NHL delayed their return from a COVID-19 outbreak.
Vancouver has not played since March 24 and had 22 players and four staff members test positive for the coronavirus. The Canucks were scheduled to return against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday and play the Maple Leafs on Saturday, but doctors from the team, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association determined they needed more time.
“Some guys have felt OK, some guys have felt good, and then there’s been probably three guys, I would say right now, that don’t feel well enough to start practicing and working out,” Vancouver general manager Jim Benning said Friday. “But I would think we would have the majority of our guys available, probably minus three or four guys.”
The number of Vancouver players listed as unavailable due to the NHL COVID-19 protocol has declined this week, from 19 on Sunday to 18 on Monday to 16 on Tuesday to seven on Wednesday to three on Thursday. Two were listed Friday: defenseman Nate Schmidt and forward Jake Virtanen.
The Canucks had 10 players skate Monday in their first team activity since their season was paused March 31 and practiced as a team for the first time Thursday. Benning said coach Travis Green has not been on the ice yet but has been feeling better each day and could run practice Saturday.
“He hopes to be behind the bench when we start back up again, and he’s going to do everything in his power to do that,” Benning said.
Several NHL teams have faced COVID-19 pauses this season, including the Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers. The NHL has postponed 53 games because of the COVID-19 protocol since the season began Jan. 13.
Benning said doctors confirmed the Canucks caught a coronavirus variant. Primary team physician Dr. Jim Bovard spoke to colleagues around the NHL and found the Canucks’ experience was different.
“With the regular COVID, it seemed like after 10 days players were ready to get back on the ice and start working out and performing,” Benning said. “We still had players that when they did that, they still had symptoms.”
Canucks captain Bo Horvat said Friday his symptoms were unlike any he had with colds or flus in the past.
“I’m feeling a lot better now,” Horvat said. “I’m one of the lucky ones that my symptoms were fairly mild. Obviously had a couple symptoms, but I got through them and am continuing to get through them.”
The virus also affected their families, and Canucks forward J.T. Miller spoke Wednesday about health being the No. 1 priority and expressed concern about returning too quickly. Players also spoke to the NHLPA.
Benning said Bovard did an assessment on each player again and spoke to the NHL and the NHLPA, which have been in constant communication and have established criteria for a return to play. They decided the Canucks weren’t healthy enough to play Friday.
“In our conversations with the League, I think that’s what we were worried about, is making sure our players feel 100 percent to get back and start practicing and working out, and then to play,” Benning said. “The League’s worked with us on our schedule here.”
The Canucks, who had nine games postponed during the outbreak, are scheduled to play 19 games in 32 days to finish the 56-game regular season, which is now scheduled to end May 19 in the Scotia North Division.
The NHL regular season was originally scheduled to end May 8. It was extended to May 11, then to May 16.
“We’re going to have a lot of games in a short period of time, but you know, we started the season playing 19 games in 34 nights, so that wasn’t easy,” Benning said. “Everything about this whole year in dealing with COVID and playing through a pandemic has been hard, but we’ll just do our best.”
Vancouver (16-18-3) is sixth in the seven-team North Division, 10 points behind the fourth-place Montreal Canadiens with three games in hand. The top four teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Canucks return with four home games: Sunday and Tuesday against Toronto, and Thursday and Saturday against the Ottawa Senators.
“We’re ready to go,” Horvat said. “We want to win. People can say what they want and think that we’re going to get steamrolled, and I think that’s more fuel to the fire to prove them wrong.
“We have a really resilient group here, a lot of guys that are going to do whatever they can to help the team win no matter what. And obviously it’s going to be tough. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s going to be easy. But we’ve got a resilient group in there that’s going to do whatever they can to help the team win and that has a lot of passion and wants to do well and wants to win here. So we’re going to come out and give it all we’ve got.”