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COVID-19 outbreak has been 'taxing' for Vancouver Canucks: Horvat

VANCOUVER — The physical strain and constant uncertainty of the last three weeks have been draining for Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat.

VANCOUVER — The physical strain and constant uncertainty of the last three weeks have been draining for Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat. 

The 26-year-old forward was one of 25 Canucks players and coaching staff who tested positive for COVID-19 after an outbreak ripped through the team late last month. 

“One day you feel better and the next day you don’t and you’re back to square one again," he said Friday. "It was taxing on a lot of guys, especially when families started to get it.”

While Horvat said his symptoms were "fairly mild," his wife, Holly, was hit hard by the virus.

“The last thing I was worried about was coming back on the ice and playing hockey at that point," Horvat said, adding that the couple did not get their nine-month-old son, Gunnar, tested for COVID. "For me, it was just trying to be a supportive husband, a dad and looking after my family. It was tough.”

Canucks general manager Jim Benning confirmed Friday that genetic testing had determined the P. 1 variant of the virus was involved in the outbreak. 

“We’re dealing with a different kind of COVID. The P. 1 variant is different. We didn’t know what to expect," he said.

Benning said the Canucks had been following provincial and NHL protocols for preventing COVID-19 and it still found its was into the locker room, showing just how serious the virus is. 

“It got all of players really sick," he said. "These are world-class athletes that we’re talking about and some of them were buckled getting through this virus."

Twenty-one players and four of the coaching staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 30. One player additional player was deemed a close contact, and another had a "false positive" test result, Benning said.

Vancouver defenceman Nate Schmidt and right-winger Jake Virtanen remained on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list Friday. At the height of the outbreak, 19 Canucks were on the list. 

A player on the protocol list has not necessarily tested positive. Players who are in self-isolation after travelling or who've been in close contact with someone who tested positive, for example, are also on the list.

The list does not include team staff or players not on the active roster, including those on the taxi squad.

The Canucks were initially scheduled to return to the ice Friday, hosting the Edmonton Oilers in Vancouver's first game since March 24, but J.T. Miller spoke out against the quick return to play earlier this week.

The Canucks forward — who did not test positive during the outbreak — said it would be "very challenging and not very safe'' to play as because the team had not had enough time to recover and get back in shape.

Miller gave voice to what many players were feeling, Horvat said. 

"He had his full teammate's support," the captain said. "All of us were thinking the same thing. We definitely felt like we needed more time and like it was unsafe."

The Canucks were finally allowed to reopen their facilities on Monday, but Horvat and his teammates had to receive medical clearance before returning to the ice. The process involved talking to doctors, having blood work done and having their heart function checked.

"A lot of guys didn’t clear," Horvat said. "Guys just were not healthy enough to play (on Friday). And I think now guys are starting to feel better and I think a lot more guys will be ready to go on Sunday.”

The NHL acquiesced, shuffling the North Division schedule to allow the Canucks more time to work their way back the outbreak. 

The league announced Friday that a pair of games between Vancouver and Toronto scheduled for Saturday and Monday will now be played Sunday and Tuesday. 

The moves had a cascading effect throughout the North Division, with 11 other games being moved, impacting six of the league's seven Canadian teams. Start times were also changed for two other games.

The North Division will now wrap its regular season on May 19. 

The Canucks have now had 11 games postponed and will finish their season with a gruelling schedule of 19 games in 32 days, including five sets of back-to-backs. 

Vancouver's already been through a difficult stretch of games this season, Benning said. 

"We started the season playing 19 games in 34 nights so that wasn’t easy," the GM said. "Everything about this whole year and dealing with COVID and playing through a pandemic has been hard but we’ll just do our best. We’ll get our players back and they’re healthy and we’ll go from there.”

The Canucks (16-18-3) currently linger near the bottom of the North Division, 10 points back of the Montreal Canadiens, who hold the fourth and final playoff spot. 

Getting back into the post-season race would be difficult even for a team that hadn't been ravaged by COVID-19, but Horvat maintains that the Canucks will continue fighting. 

“We’re ready to go. We want to win," he said. "People can say what they want and think that we’re going to get steamrolled. I think that’s just more fuel to the fire to prove them wrong. 

"We have a really resilient group here, a lot of guys that are going to do whatever they can to help the team win, no matter what."

Who, exactly, will be ready to go when the Canucks play Sunday remains to be seen. Players practiced Thursday and Friday, but media were barred from the on-ice sessions for "privacy reasons," Benning said. 

He said three or four players from the regular lineup may not be well enough to play against the Leafs come Sunday. 

Canucks head coach Travis Green was also among those who tested positive for COVID-19 and had not returned to practice as of Friday. Assistant coaches Nolan Baumgartner and Jason King — who did not catch the virus — have been running practices in his absence. 

"Travis is feeling better every day, " Benning said. "He hopes to be behind the bench when we start up again and he’s going to do everything in his power to do that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2021.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press