Sutter’s son Brandon is among the 25 members of the Vancouver Canucks who have contracted the virus in what has become the worst outbreak in the NHL this season — and perhaps in North American professional sports since the start of the pandemic. But it didn’t stop with Sutter’s son. Brandon Sutter had originally isolated from his wife and two children after being infected, but they also later tested positive, and all four are now isolating together, Brent Sutter said this week.
“It’s a tough situation because his family has it, too. He’s got little ones; you’re concerned for them. … His wife is pregnant; you worry about her,” said Sutter, who was also Red Deer’s coach but stepped down Saturday. “They will get through it. Just hopefully there’s no after effects because nobody really knows. You just have to see how it goes in time and see what happens, I guess.”
The Canucks, who have had seven games postponed amid the outbreak, have emerged as a microcosm of the uptick in cases in British Columbia, where highly contagious coronavirus variants have spread rapidly and increasingly infected young people. That includes the P.1 variant, which was first detected in Brazil and has been responsible for more than 800 cases in the province over the past month. While the Canucks have confirmed that a variant is responsible for the team’s outbreak, the organization said full genome sequencing is being conducted by local health officials to determine the type.
In Canada, the news of the outbreak has raised questions about whether new variants were overcoming guidelines and restrictions in place to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Jim Bovard, the Canucks’ team physician, told reporters Friday that the outbreak originated from a person in the organization “who had gone to a place within the guidelines, and that place was subsequently found to have cases of covid.” Thursday was the first day since April 1 that no Canucks were added the NHL’s covid-19 protocol list; only a handful of players on the team’s roster are not on the list.
“It’s not an accident that it occurred when it did with what’s going on in the broader community,” Bovard said. “Everybody is following and trying to follow to the best of their ability all the protocols in place. … There’s no culprit here other than the virus itself.”
Bovard said no members of the organization had been hospitalized, though many players have dealt with symptoms in the past week. When Greg Holtby talked to his son, goaltender Braden Holtby, on Thursday, it sounded as if Holtby, who won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018, had “a cold.” Braden Holtby’s wife and two children also contracted the virus, his father said.
“Braden was quarantined to start with until they came down with it, and then they were all together. They’re getting through it just fine,” Greg Holtby said in a phone interview. “We talked to him before, and he explained all of the protocols they have to go through. To me, from out in the middle of nowhere, it seemed excessive. But obviously it wasn’t enough. So it must be tremendously contagious, the one they have now. That being said, I don’t know if it’s any worse when you get it.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to The Washington Post that, while the league has not made any changes to its protocols in the wake of the Vancouver outbreak, “reminders on specific points of protocol were re-communicated to the clubs.” The NHL announced Saturday that, pending the day’s test results, the Canucks will reopen their team facility for practice Sunday and return to play Friday. A player must test negative twice or have at least 10 days pass since symptoms appeared to return to action. All players also must be cleared by a cardiologist and a team physician before returning to play. The Canucks have 19 games remaining on their schedule.
“For the most part our players are on the other side of this. We still have family members that are getting sick, and I think the players worry about that,” Canucks General Manager Jim Benning told reporters Friday. “My conversations with the league are, we’re going to continue with our schedule here at some point and we’re going to play all 56 games. Those are the conversations I’m having with the league.”
While it remains unclear whether any Vancouver players have received a vaccine, the Canucks’ outbreak still underscored the vaccine inequity in North America. In the United States, where many jurisdictions have opened up eligibility to everyone 16 and over, the New York Rangers tweeted a photo of defenseman Jacob Trouba getting his shot this week. Meanwhile, Canada — where seven of the NHL’s 31 teams are based — has been grappling with vaccine shortages. The country lacks the ability to manufacture its own vaccines and has been competing with other countries to get supplies.
Part of its plan included the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been linked in some countries to blood clots. Canada is no longer using those supplies as health officials get more information about the adverse effects. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated as of this week, compared with less than 2 percent in Canada.
For some parents of Canucks players, returning to the ice remains an afterthought. Greg Holtby has not been able to watch his son play in person this season, even in Edmonton, which is just a 2½-hour drive from his home in Saskatchewan. He feels the distance even more now. “We felt a little bit helpless that we couldn’t be there to help at all,” he said.
Brent Sutter could relate; he remained in a perpetual state of worry this week. Players on the team he owns, the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, continued to live in their bubble and underwent weekly testing for the virus again Wednesday.
“You don’t want it to get in, because if it does, it can go through you pretty quickly, too,” said Sutter, who while waiting for those results relied on texts and calls from Brandon for updates.
“They’re all isolating together. His little ones are 3 and 2 years old. So this is hitting all kinds of ages. It’s scary. It’s concerning, and it’s worrisome, and you feel for everybody there,” Sutter said. “But the reality is, it just says how contagious this all is and how quickly it can spread.”