The long-term impact of the Vancouver Canucks' Covid crisis will stretch well beyond cancelled games and gripes about the schedule.
J.T. Miller's candid Zoom call on Wednesday, where he expressed concern that it wasn't safe for the team to start playing games again as soon as Friday, has triggered further conversations.
First things first: kudos to the Canucks for posting the interview in two parts on its Twitter channel. If you haven't seen it, it's worth watching in its entirety.
Part of what makes Miller's comments resonate so impactfully is how he's grappling with his own role in the situation. He admitted to feeling some guilt that he was one of the few players that didn't contract the virus. And he clearly feels an enormous responsibility to carry as much of the load as he possibly can — but isn't sure how effective he can be based on his own physical limitations, after being off the ice for such a long time.
Later on Wednesday, after Miller spoke, a group of Canucks had a conversation with the Players' Association — the group that's tasked with looking out for players' best interests. But that also includes making sure that players get paid. And if one club does not complete its 56-game schedule, it sounds like that could impact broadcast and sponsor revenue that's expected for this season.
If that's the case, every player and every team takes an even bigger hit on the bottom line than that they're already dealing with. Should the PA stand up for one aggrieved subset of its membership, or look at what's best for the whole?
I saw a red flag on Tuesday, when I expected a good-sized group of Canucks players to come off the Covid protocol list, based on the timing of when Adam Gaudette and Travis Hamonic had been cleared. They'd been the first two players on the list, so I assumed the others would come off at the same rate.
But only two more players came off the list on Tuesday afternoon — Quinn Hughes, who was part of the group I'd expected to see cleared, and the injured Jay Beagle, who was added on Sunday but who apparently received a false positive.
Of the four others, who first went on the list with Hughes on April 2, two came off on Wednesday: Braden Holtby and Antoine Roussel. Alex Edler and Zack MacEwen remained on the list.
Seven others first went on on April 3 — Travis Boyd, Thatcher Demko, Jayce Hawryluk, Bo Horvat, Tyler Motte, Tyler Myers and Brandon Sutter. All but Hawryluk came off on Wednesday.
In addition to Edler, MacEwen and Hawyrluk, four other names remained on Wednesday's list. Jalen Chatfield was initially added on April 4, Nils Hoglander on April 5, Jake Virtanen on April 6 and Nate Schmidt on April 7.
In an email to Ken Campbell of The Hockey News
, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that, "By (Thursday), their ‘full team’ will be healthy and cleared."
Let's see if that's how it plays out. The plan was to hold a full practice at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, which would be open to the media. Thursday morning, the club announced on Twitter
that the practice will now be closed to the media, with more details to be announced later.
Since the rink re-opened this week, players have been skating on their own, in individual sessions.
"It's strange," admitted Miller. "It's nothing like (regular practice); probably won't experience it again.
"I never thought I would have to, in April, be skating one on one in a separate group. But as of right now, like I keep saying, the plan is to play Friday. So I guess as a guy that wasn't affected, I need to do my best to make sure that I'm practicing as hard as I can right now, trying to not hurt myself and just try to be ready to play the game Friday."
As far as the schedule goes, "their remaining schedule is challenging, but it’s certainly not unprecedented," Daly told Campbell. "Very similar compression to what a number of other teams have faced this year, and, quite frankly, what all teams face in Olympic years.
"But most importantly, the team wants to finish its season. We aren’t twisting arms here. Everything, including resumption date and various other critical aspects of their remaining schedule, were done entirely collaboratively and with club input and consent."
That's important. Not just the NHL but also the Players' Association and the Canucks organization itself signed off on this schedule. And I suspect the club argued for the front-loaded aspect, with six straight home games at the beginning of the restart to help buy a little more recovery time and allow players to re-integrate into the lineup as they get healthier.
As I've mentioned before, the schedule itself is not that different from what some other Covid-impacted teams have faced.
"Montreal missed a week, practised one day, and played," wrote Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet on Wednesday night
. "Minnesota was out nine days, practised for three and returned with a lineup that included Calen Addison, Matt Bartkowski, Louie Belpedio, Gerald Mayhew and Dakota Mermis.
"New Jersey, which had a bad outbreak, was off 14 days, practised for one, then played.
"However, it’s been conceded that those who suffered symptoms among the Canucks had the worst ride of any COVID shutdown. It’s not just about being cleared to play, it’s also about how long it takes your body to recover."
I think it's also about the Canucks' farm-team situation making the call-up/taxi squad situation much more challenging than, say, in New Jersey, where the Binghamton Devils have been playing out of the big club's rink at the Prudential Center this season. Also, of course, travel is much easier for the Devils, who can bus to most of their road games in the East Division.
I took a peek at the Devils' roster
for the first game back after their shutdown, on Feb. 16. It's mostly made up of NHL players, but they did still have three names on the Covid protocol list that day: Nico Hischier, Dmitry Kulikov and Travis Zajac, and didn't get everyone back until Feb. 20.
So I'm sympathetic to the Canucks — and on top of the cardiovascular challenges of getting back to NHL speed after Covid, I can also see how Miller's fear of injury is real, if players come back and aren't fully in game shape.
But I can also see why some people think they should suck it up. Other teams have also dealt with difficult outbreaks. I keep wondering if Ralph Krueger would still have a job if the Buffalo Sabres hadn't gone on that downward spiral after they were hit.
Last week, we heard Connor McDavid complaining about the Oilers being forced to play on the day of Colby Cave's memorial service. Yesterday, I even saw some chatter about how the high-flying Avalanche feel like they're getting jobbed.
Lots of things are less than ideal in our Covid world. And as we struggle through Year 2 with no clear end in sight, nerves are frayed all round. I think that's what's making people — not just in hockey, but in life — more inclined to speak up about their own issues.
For me right now — I'm curious to see what news comes out of this morning's practice, and whether the medical staff does put up a red flag about the group's fitness to play on Friday.
I'm also curious to see the long-term impact of this team effort by the Canucks to make their voices heard, in the wake of Miller's interview. On this week's '31 Thoughts' podcast, Elliotte Friedman said that this whole situation has stirred up a lot of emotions throughout the organization — and I've wondered whether that will lead to a fractured dressing room, or even to players questioning whether they'd want to remain with the organization long term.
Perhaps building a united front for the their own health and safety, and that of their families, is something that can bring the boys together as they trudge to the finish line of this very difficult season?