'We're here to win': Canucks not settling for moral victories after COVID outbreak

VANCOUVER — Running the Vancouver Canucks practice Saturday left Travis Green's voice hoarse.

It was the first time the head coach had taken to the ice with his players since the team was ravaged by a COVID-19 outbreak caused by the aggressive P. 1 variant.

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Green was hit particularly hard by the virus, but said he's feeling stronger every day.

He dealt with flu-like symptoms for four or five days. Just as Green started to feel better, the 50-year-old was hit by another wave of illness with worse symptoms for several days.

"At that point, I was a little worried," Green said. "The physical part is hard, but also the mental part is hard when you're going through this as well."

The gruff coach was back to his usual self for Saturday's skate, Canucks centre Brandon Sutter said.

"It was good to have him back out there yelling at us," Sutter said. "It was nice, a little bit of normalcy again."

The last three weeks have been anything but normal for the Canucks.

Vancouver hasn't played a game since March 24, and 11 games were postponed as the team recovered from the outbreak.

Green was among 25 people in the organization — 21 players and four coaching staff — who have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 30.

One additional player was considered a close contact, and general manager Jim Benning said another player had a false positive test.

Vancouver defenceman Nate Schmidt and right-winger Jake Virtanen remained on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list Saturday.

At the height of the outbreak, 19 Canucks were on the list.

Several family members, including Sutter's pregnant wife and their two young children, also tested positive for the virus.

Knowing so many of his players were sick was tough on Green.

"When you coach a team and you care about your players so much, it's almost like your kids," he said. "You want to make them feel better and you can't."

Vancouver was scheduled to host the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, but the NHL delayed the Canucks' return after forward J.T. Miller said the team didn't have enough time to recover.

The Canucks are at home Sunday to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Two extra days of recovery and practice were "huge," Sutter said.

The majority of the Canucks have been confined to beds and couches trying to get healthy again, he explained.

"This was something different where we were kind of thrown back in," Sutter said. "A lot of guys obviously lost weight, we were just dealing with the whole illness of it. It was challenging."

Getting medical clearance to return to the ice involved blood work and having their heart functions checked, as well as conversations with doctors.

Several didn't pass their first attempt at medical clearance. All Canucks practices have been closed to media since the team reopened its facilities Monday.

Those skating Saturday had energy and good pace, Sutter said.

"I think everyone feels way more comfortable than they did 48 hours ago," the veteran said. "We’ve put ourselves in a position now to at least come back healthy and give ourselves a chance."

The Leafs (28-12-4) will be a difficult post-COVID test for the Canucks.

Toronto tops the all-Canadian North Division, while Vancouver (16-18-3) lingers near the bottom.

Leafs marquee centre Auston Matthews leads the league in goals with 32.

Sunday's game will be a challenge no matter the opponent, Sutter said.

"The pace is going to be high no matter who you’re playing," he said.

Some Canucks remain out of the lineup. Defenceman Olli Juolevi, forward Tyler Motte and goalie Thatcher Demko are all unavailable, Green said.

Virtanen and Schmidt haven't skated because they're still in COVID-19 protocol. Star centre Elias Pettersson also remains on the injured-reserve list.

The Canucks are scheduled to play 19 games over the next 32 days, so coaches must pay attention to the players' energy levels across the final stretch.

"We’re going to have to give our guys rest and we’re going to have to monitor our guys," Green said.

"The one thing about hockey players is they want to play. It’s easy for everyone to say ‘Just sit guys out.’ It’s going to be really monitoring them, talking to them, seeing how they feel and being honest with them."

Vancouver has faced numerous challenges in this pandemic-condensed season, but the team isn't looking for moral victories to close out the year, the coach said.

"We’re here to win," Green said. "This is the NHL, it’s a competitive league and rightfully so. This is not ‘Let’s go play 19 games and get them over with.’

"That’s not our mindset. We’re here strictly to win (Sunday) night and get ready for the next game after that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2021.

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