Canucks' COVID cases reveal league's bad call in putting play before safety

It is a pivot, as we call them in the pandemic: to wish the Vancouver Canucks to be safe, far more than to win.

Pretty much the entire team, some coaches and staff, and of course many family members are stricken with COVID-19, possibly (but not certainly) the victims of the P.1 variant hurtling across British Columbia, and our hopes should be hitched more with their material health than with the team’s immaterial playoff aspirations.

The value of a sports franchise to a community’s identity is without peer. The pandemic swept so much activity from our lives, threatened us in ways we could not recall, and hobbled our economic well-being beyond our physical and mental health. Sport was the first sign of normalcy in the shambles.

Still, no matter the yearning to see all the games, my vote initially last year was to shut down the major sports leagues. The risk-reward ratio felt too high. It felt almost voyeuristic in watching players navigate a daily health threat to perform and entertain us in our own relative suppression of routines.

I was wrong to suggest they could not forge ahead initially in the controlled “bubbles” in hockey and basketball to complete their seasons. We got through the delayed seasons without fans in the stands.

But the Version 2.0 of this, with travel and limited arena spectators most everywhere (except Arlington for baseball, where it’s graphic full-on indifference), has been asking for trouble. And trouble has found the leagues and many of the teams we locally most support: the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association and, now, thoroughly, the Canucks.

Did this need to happen this way? Might a serious delay in the start of a truncated season have been a better course of action? 

It is increasingly evident now, with first the Dallas Stars delayed and now the Canucks savaged by the coronavirus, the National Hockey League was wrong to start the season without first vaccinating the players, team staff and families. The National Hockey League Players Association was wrong to agree that its members try to manoeuvre through this. Thankfully, Major League Baseball teams in the first week of the regular season are getting vaccinated with the more advanced schedules below the border, as are NBA teams entering the home stretch of their season.

When it became clear in the last two weeks that a third wave was hitting Canada, in which every NHL city is experiencing horrible caseloads outracing the glacial vaccinations, we ought to have called off the push-through.

Public health authorities were ethically correct in not letting the teams jump the queue. That would have been a public outrage. But in hindsight – and all COVID wisdom seems to be in hindsight, sadly – perhaps that was the hazardous signal that deserved to be heeded.

It is clear now we’ve been wrong as fans to expect them to perform, no matter their salaries and their finite career durations. The league risks tragedies the longer we persist in pursuing games without – and maybe even with – vaccinated improvements in safety.

The Canucks are decimated by this. Nearly 20 of their players alone are sick, some reportedly have been quite so. They face an improbable task of recovering their health and resuming play in a week or two in a compressed schedule challenge of 19 more games over about three-plus weeks against teams largely fighting for playoff positions who are bound to be more intense.

What could possibly go wrong?

No, it’s time to recognize that the risks could not be defied and deserve to be abided. There is nothing to gain by staging Canucks games when they were almost mathematically eliminated from a playoff pursuit. The NHL can figure out how to calculate which of the four of the other six North Division teams go forward without the Canucks serving as competitors.

There is no shame in stopping; there might be shame in starting again.

If a sports team contributes to our civic identity, there is no better way to exemplify its leadership at this critical juncture of the pandemic than for the team to recognize the variant’s threat and recede from the scene.

While we wrest with heightened threat, this is the right thing for all of us to do. And after all, We Are All Canucks.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.