The NHL says it remains hopeful the Vancouver Canucks can complete a 56-game schedule even though 25 members of the team have tested positive for a variant form of COVID-19, but some experts question if that is possible.
The Canucks released a statement Wednesday saying 21 players, including three on the taxi squad, plus four staff members, “have tested positive and the source infection is confirmed a variant.” Which variant has not been confirmed.
On Tuesday, when the Canucks had 18 players on the COVID-19 protocol list, an NHL spokesman said “a 56-game season is still the focus,” but if necessary the league has some flexibility on scheduling the opening of the playoffs. Asked Wednesday if anything had changed following the Canucks’ announcement, the spokesman said, “my answer is the same as it was yesterday.”
An NHL agent said he had heard nothing about any plans to cancel games.
“So far it sounds like they will push forward based on what I’m hearing,” the agent said.
WATCH | Concerns intensify amid Canucks’ growing outbreak:
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician for St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, said studies have shown people affected by the different variants “will recover on pace,” but depending on the severity of the virus — professional players may need extra time to regain their conditioning.
“They may be out of quarantine in 10 days, but a lot of players may not return after they are considered clear,” he said. “They may actually need a few weeks to get back to hockey normal.”
The Canucks’ situation is complicated because so many players have contracted the virus.
“If you have an outbreak of five or six [players] you can fill in the gaps, you can wait for some of your players to condition properly,” Chagla said. “At 21 players, that’s 21 different players that need to condition properly, that’s 21 players that need to get back into shape, get over their COVID and heal.”
Recovering from the virus is different from rehabbing after a sports injury.
“[A] lot of these guys, it sounds like, were in bed at home,” Chagla said. “You’re losing muscle mass; you’re losing that elite shape.”
WATCH | Vancouver Canucks sidelined by COVID-19:
When the first Canuck player tested positive last week, Vancouver’s next four games were postponed. The Canucks were scheduled to return to play Thursday in Calgary against the Flames. The Canucks’ website now says that game and another on Saturday in Calgary have been postponed.
The NHL season was originally scheduled to end May 8 but has already been extended to May 11 to allow for previously postponed games.
The Canucks have 19 regular season games remaining.
The cost of doing business
Corey Hirsch, a former NHL goaltender who is now a member of the Canucks’ radio broadcast team, worries about the physical strain forced on players if they are expected to play their remaining games in a condensed period of time after overcoming the virus.
“You are talking about the whole team,” he said. “You’re not only talking about one guy. My question would be if they are at risk of injury because of the physical shape they are in.”
Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer in the economics of sports, gaming and gambling at Concordia University in Montreal, said the Canucks’ situation is a result of the NHL “not bubbling up for a season.”
“The NHL has accepted this is the cost of doing business,” said Lander.
Delaying the start of the playoffs creates problems for teams in the other three divisions, Lander said. The league also won’t want the playoffs extending into late July because of the Tokyo Summer Games.
Last year’s playoffs, which included a play-in round, began Aug. 1 and ended Sept. 28.
Lander predicts Vancouver might only play 50 games, which will impact other teams in the NHL’s North Division.
“A whole bunch of Canuck games are going to be cancelled, not going to be made up,” he said. “You’re cancelling games against the Oilers, or the Canadiens, or [other teams] that are playoff-bound so their ranking system is going to be disrupted.
“The NHL has protocols in place to determine tiebreakers. I’m assuming it’s just going to be best winning percentage. Everybody has played enough games at this point that you have a reasonable enough sample size to know who [the playoff teams] are.”
Even before the virus struck, Vancouver faced an uphill battle to make the playoffs.
Heading into Wednesday night, the Canucks (16-18-3) trailed Montreal by eight points for the final playoff spot in the North Division.