The Vancouver Canucks haven’t played a game since March 24, as a huge portion of their roster has spent the last few weeks dealing with a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak—one that went well beyond just the inconvenience of contract tracing and asymptomatic cases. But the three-week pause is finally supposed to come to an end on Friday with a game against the Edmonton Oilers, which will kick off a demanding stretch of 19 games in 31 days that’s intended to catch Vancouver up with the rest of the NHL, fulfill TV obligations, and ensure that the season ends before the league’s broadcast partner, NBC, starts televising the Olympics.
The problem is, the Canucks—who aren’t even a playoff contender, for god’s sake—don’t actually seem ready to return to normal, and veteran forward J.T. Miller made that fact clear when he talked to reporters on Wednesday. Anyone with some critical thinking skills should be able to work out that a bunch of guys who just had COVID probably shouldn’t be asked to push their bodies beyond what they’d do even in a normal hockey season, but hearing Miller lay it all out in blunt terms further drives home the grim reality of what lies ahead for the team.
“What we’re being asked to do is not going to be too safe, if you’re asking me,” Miller said. “It’s kind of frustrating, if I’m being honest with you. We try to talk about the No. 1 priority being the players health and their families’ safety, and it’s almost impossible to do what they’ve asked us to do here on our return.”
ESPN reported that many of the Canucks’ infected players suffered from symptoms like fatigue, chills, aches, and dehydration, and that at least one player required an IV. Miller said that some teammates were “struggling to breathe going up and down steps.” He added that, even though he was one of the few Canucks who didn’t test positive for COVID, he still felt unprepared for a lengthy run of games simply because of the long layoff.
“This is going to be a really tough challenge,” he said. “And you know, even for me, skating a couple times, my lungs are screaming and definitely not in game shape at all right now from sitting around and not doing much. I couldn’t imagine what these guys [who had COVID-19] are going to have to go through to get back and be ready to play at a high level.
“I’d never thought I’d be in this scenario in my career. It’s going to be a start of a really long stretch, short but hard stretch at the end of the year here. A reaction? I don’t know. It’s not ideal, obviously, for anybody, but we have a job to do, I guess.”
COVID pauses have been an inescapable obstacle for every sports league since last year, and the way they’re often presented—that phrase “abundance of caution” comes to mind—paints them as a minor annoyance or as mild adversity for an otherwise fine (if restless) group of athletes. But the longer the pandemic’s lasted, the more and more we’ve seen instances of the fittest people in the world struggle to quickly return to full strength after getting hit by the virus, and as Miller notes it’s impossible for a league to claim that health and safety are a priority when it’s forcing a 16-18-3 team through six weeks’ worth of games in a month while ignoring the clear lingering dangers.
According to The Athletic, the NHL had a conference call in the aftermath of Miller’s comments in which they discussed the possibility of tweaking the schedule further, and that might still happen before Vancouver and Edmonton take the ice tomorrow. But the fact is that after over a year of this shit, the league needed the bad PR of Miller’s comments to even think about reconsidering their stupid, greedy plan.
Update (3:10 p.m. ET): The tweaks have begun.