Sports

NHL is failing with handling of Canucks’ COVID-19 return

The NHL and NHLPA have handled the unprecedented challenges posed over the past 13 months admirably, balancing the well-being of the industry with the safety of those under their charge.

But sending the Canucks back to work after the most serious outbreak of COVID-19 encountered by any NHL team so they can dutifully play out the string of a season gone horribly wrong seems a story that belongs under one of those generic headlines we’ve read all too often:

“CORPORATION ORDERS EMPLOYEES BACK TO WORK”

Please do not talk to me about the integrity of the schedule or the integrity of the playoff race in the Canadian division. Neither exists under these conditions. The five teams that have a sum of 19 games remaining against Vancouver will in essence be picking at the carcass of a club whose players, staff members and respective families have been struck, and struck hard, by the P1 variant of the virus.

Playing these games — when they start Sunday night, the Canucks will be scheduled to play 19 games in 32 days, an insane burden even if placed on the healthiest and best conditioned of teams — will add mockery to the playoff race, not justify it.

But that, of course, is secondary. The league, the union (whose influence delayed the Canucks’ return to the ice by an entire 48 hours) and team ownership all have conspired to send Vancouver’s players and staff members into the unknown.

Cardiologists did their testing, but no one knows the long-range effects of having contracted this more virulent strain of the virus. No one knows what the long-term implications will be on these players, staff members and their families. The most learned and most well-intentioned physicians and immunologists don’t know.

Is this about national and local television contracts? It certainly is not about gate receipts — no fans are permitted to attend games across Canada, parts of which are being ravaged by the virus.

Or is this simply the combined elements of the industry affirming the idiom, “The show must go on,” so that the NHL does not become the only one of the four major North American sports unable to complete its appointed schedule through this pandemic?

In this case, there is no show. There is a mass of individuals stricken by the virus who apparently are obligated to put themselves in harm’s way.

If one person’s immediate or long-term health suffers because of this — and that includes members of these employees’ families, and, further extended, players and staff members of opposing teams (and their families) — the NHL and NHLPA will regret this forever.


Meanwhile, the province of Ontario is under emergency lockdown, with police granted extraordinary powers to keep folks off the streets, and the Maple Leafs and Senators are going about their business as (comparatively) usual, flying to-and-fro across the country, playing a collision sport indoors even as the commoners are not permitted to play golf.

Jason Spezza #19 of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for the puck against Tim Stützle #18 of the Ottawa Senators
Nothing is keeping the Maple Leafs and Senators from their business despite Canada’s COVID-19 lockdown.
Getty Images

That’s “abundance of caution” for one sector of the population, and perhaps necessary, whereas “the show must go on” for another. And people wonder why there is so much resentment, confusion and anger across the continent as the virus rages on.

While the 24 U.S.-based teams all have access to the vaccine, no Canadian team does. The playoff schedule is going to be hectic enough, especially now that the regular season has been extended through May 19 to accommodate the rescheduling of Canucks games, but one would think the NHL would make the vaccine available to whichever Canadian team relocates to the United States for the final two rounds of the tournament.


I see that Kevin Hayes had one point (an assist) in his past nine games going into the Flyers’ match Saturday against the Capitals, and I can only deduce that he has gone on a sympathy strike in support of his friends on the Canucks.

Ah, the old salary drive, as exemplified in this case by Taylor Hall.

So I hear or read about the Blue Jackets’ upcoming decision whether to “rebuild or reload,” and wonder if we are taking about the same Blue Jackets who have won one playoff round in their history. That one triumph came two years ago while they still had all the guys who left town as soon as they could.

Speaking of whom, here he is again, Artemi Panarin at the top of the list for five-on-five points per 60:00 at 3.5 per, substantially ahead of runner-up Mark Stone at 3.08 per (entering play on Saturday), and the question remains: The Blackhawks traded this guy after two seasons even up for Brandon Saad?


So what is it about the No. 6 that makes it the “worst” single-digit number in NHL annals?

There is only one No. 6 retired across the NHL — that in honor of Toronto’s Ace Bailey, whose career prematurely ended when he went into convulsions and sustained a fractured skull after being clubbed to the ice from behind by Eddie Shore in that infamous Dec. 12, 1933, incident.

Bailey’s number was retired on Feb. 14, 1934, at an NHL All-Star benefit match. In fact, Bailey became the first North American pro athlete to have his number retired. Almost nine decades later, not another hockey player who donned No. 6 has followed.

Jason Spezza #19 of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for the puck against Tim Stützle #18 of the Ottawa Senators during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on April 10, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
Ace Bailey’s No. 6 hangs in the rafters are the Scotiabank Arena.
Getty Images

Bailey, by the way, later asked the Leafs to unretire his number so that Ron Ellis could wear it.

Of course, that is not even close to as strange as the Islanders and Clark Gillies briefly unretiring his No. 9 so that Dave Chyzowski could wear it.

Be that as it may, ranking the NHL’s all-time No. 6s: 1. Toe Blake; 2. Phil Housley; 3. Ken Morrow; 4. Shea Weber; 5. Neil Colville; 6. Bun Cook. Honorable Mention: Joe Micheletti.

And the Rangers: 1. Colville; 2. Cook; 3. Anton Stralman; 4. Manny Malhotra; 5. Al MacNeil. Honorable Mention: Bobby Sheehan. Dishonorable Mention: Gilles Marotte.

No wonder George Costanza never suggested his child be named “Six.”


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