No better example than the dire times in Vancouver, with the Canucks unable to play a shift since March 24, for anyone to have a clearer understanding about the lingering iron clench of COVID-19.
The disease we want to wish away, and sometimes act like it’s yesterday’s news (see: Texas Rangers home opener before nearly 40,000 fans), just won’t let go, some 13 months after the NHL temporarily closed up shop at the start of the pandemic.
The Canucks last week reported 21 of their players, virtually the entire roster, remained in COVID protocol. Former BC goalie Thatcher Demko and ex-Northeastern forward Adam Gaudette were among those named on the league’s daily protocol as of Friday night. Four team staffers also have tested positive.
No NHL team, since the start of play in January, has reported a higher number. The franchise, located in one of North America’s most beautiful cities, remains in freeze mode, and it will be the virus, not the NHL schedule maker, that ultimately determines if the Canucks will play the final 19 games to complete the 56-game season.
Old-school coach Darryl Sutter, the farm boy from Viking, Alberta, who returned this season as the Flames bench boss, summed up what remains the No. 1 priority for Vancouver and everywhere else in North America and beyond: vaccination.
“We’re not getting the vaccines necessary as a society here to curb this,” a frustrated Sutter told NHL.com late in the week.
Preach it, Reverend Coach. And we only can hope the choir heeds the message.
The Pacific Northwest’s struggles with a pandemic are not new to the hockey history book. More than a century ago, the Spanish flu put a halt to the 1919 Stanley Cup Final, being played that spring in Seattle between the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and the PCHA’s Seattle Metropolitans.
The ’19 series remains the only Cup Final never to have a winner declared. The band on the prized silver trophy housed at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto reads, in all caps, “SERIES NOT COMPLETED.”
The best-of-seven affair was halted after five games, 2-2-1, because by then five Habs players — representing half the roster — were in a Seattle hospital, in some cases fighting body temperatures that spiked as high as 105.
As of Friday evening, the Canucks reported that no one had been hospitalized. No small blessing there. According to the NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika, the team’s primary physician said cases had peaked and the club was ready to confer with both the league and the Players’ Association about sketching out a plan to reopen facilities and, ideally, a path to return to playing games.
“We still have family members that are getting sick,” added Canucks GM Jim Benning, once the assistant GM in Boston, “and I think players worry about that.”
It was reported earlier that it was one of the disease’s variant forms tearing through the Canucks. Dr. Jim Bovard, the club’s primary physician, noted Friday to NHL.com that the club was able to discern the original point of contact and added that none of the established precautions had been broken. Despite best practices, the virus often prevails.
“There’s no culprit here other than the COVID virus itself,” Bovard said. “Everybody’s been working incredibly hard in the last year trying to avoid getting it — in spite of their best efforts, this can happen.”
In 1919, the theory was that the Montreal players contracted the deadly virus during a brief hotel stay in Victoria, British Columbia, across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver. It had taken the Habs, backed in those days by legendary goalie Georges Vezina, approximately a week to train across Canada from Quebec.
The Canadiens in hospital care in Seattle included Ed “Newsy” Lalonde (previously a newspaper reporter), Jack McDonald, Billy Coutu, Louis Berlinguette, Joe Hall and manager/coach George Kennedy.
Hall, 37, did not survive. Sick and laboring throughout Game 5, he was rushed to the hospital after Montreal’s 4-3 OT win, a thrilling comeback after rallying from a 3-0 third-period deficit.
Hall was the first in hospital care, followed quickly by his four teammates and Kennedy, who, despite his own sickness, offered to complete the series with a roster filled out with amateurs from a Victoria team. But Seattle’s manager, Pete Muldoon, nixed the idea.
Hall, who decades later was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, perished April 5 in the city’s Columbus Sanitarium — four days after the series had been called.
Now 102 years after the lost Cup final, and Hall’s death, the Canucks franchise remains at a standstill amid another pandemic. Their wait, and likewise their fight to reclaim good health, serve to remind again of our limitations, even amid today’s scientific breakthroughs offering protection and promise.
Maybe the Canucks get to play again, have a chance to finish their season, make the playoffs, have a Cup run, who knows, maybe even win the big silvery mug for the first time in franchise history. That would be a nice tale.
For now, though, all of that seems merely subtext to the larger story of 25 or so players and staff getting back in a game measured not by wins and losses but rather the infinite, splendid trivialities of daily life, the yin and yang of today, tomorrow and the next day.
If nothing else, the last year should have taught us that the games will go on, maybe not as we’ve always known them, or watched them, or consumed them. They’ll survive. We just have to do the same.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.