The Unsurprising (Relative) Silence About the Canucks’ COVID Outbreak

A week ago, the NHL postponed a few games involving the Vancouver Canucks, who like their fellow Canadian franchises have been playing their 2021 season in the North Division. Since last spring, our northern neighbors closed the American/Canadian border in hopes of restricting travel and reducing the spread of the coronavirus. With that closure still in place, the NHL went with a temporary realignment for 2021 where their seven Canadian franchises compete against one another in a single division. While a team’s main roster of 23 players was not increased, it is allowed additional four to six players in what’s called a taxi squad, something that already exists in the NFL. (For the unfamiliar, here is the setup.)

As we have come to expect from all competitions that have gone on in North America, a few positive cases have thrown schedules in flux. Yet what’s happening in Vancouver has been a far greater test than anyone has imagined.

COVID cases have skyrocketed in the Vancouver area and throughout the province of British Columbia. Combined with a slow vaccination rollout up north and mask fatigue (or dismissal) from enough people, and it isn’t a shock that the community spread hasn’t abated yet. ESPN, The Athletic and other outlets reported earlier this week that the number of positive tests were going to rise among the Canucks, but the numbers are still staggering.

21 players, four staffers.

(You can blink.)

21 players, four staffers.

This is fairly close to that doomsday scenario we feared when sports leagues resumed play last year, isn’t it? A group of young and seemingly healthy men – who by and large as among the best-conditioned human beings on the planet – with older peers, though they might also be in fairly good shape when considering their line of work.

It’s a complete contrast from the successful restart of the 2019-20 season this past summer, though the structure was entirely different for understandable reasons. No one in the league would want to bubble up again, and the only reason why there was almost unanimous buy-in for the bubble was that the playoffs were about a month away when the league shut down in the first place. The one saving grace right now is that unlike some teams stateside, not one of the Canadian teams have brought fans back to their arenas.

It’s honestly a bit surprising that this hasn’t generated more discussion throughout media, or at the very least some chatter with the Extremely Online crowd in sports. Perhaps this is yours truly being cynical of the cynics, but many of those who were quite vocal about their displeasure about sports pushing forward last summer and fall seem rather quiet right now about what’s going on with the Canucks.

What doesn’t help is that barely a word is being said in legacy media on any sizable scale. No wraparound coverage of the ordeal outside of local media or sport-specific beats. No Sunday news show swooping in with drones at the Canadian border and socially-distanced roundtables to make mountains out of molehills. Not even a joke from the late night talk circuit (although The Daily Show is the best equipped to get a decent slapshot off).

Is this because the outbreak isn’t happening in the States, where the country is flirting with a fourth wave despite the uptick in vaccinations? Is it because the NHL isn’t back on ESPN just yet, which would suddenly bring back some cultural cache that doesn’t exist with NBC Sports? Is it just that low on the totem pole for everyone when it comes to the daily deluge of bad COVID news?

But all of that aside and as cliché as it might sound, one has to wonder if this outbreak happened in the NBA, how loud the volume would get. After all, it’s already been pretty loud.

The NBA has already drawn much ire this season in its handling of COVID; some earned, some unearned. The Kevin Durant saga back in February inspired days of talking points and rage tweets as the Brooklyn Nets forward was pulled, re-inserted, then re-pulled from a game due to what turned out to be a positive diagnosis. His bizarre night got attention beyond sports media as it made its way to hard news, business news, and People Magazine, of all places. Yet, the outrage was largely on point as the league made a huge mess, putting just about everyone on the court at risk of catching the virus.

Yet some weeks later, another superstar’s comment about the COVID-19 vaccine had arguably too much ink devoted to it in all likelihood because of who said it. LeBron James could literally say “I like ketchup on my French fries,” and people would lose their minds. So when he said that his decision is “a private matter,” and that he would like to speak with his family before deciding whether he would get vaccinated or not, the media world predictably pushed the story as if it was Game 1 of the NBA Finals. One particular opinion from Martenzie Johnson at The Undefeated went even further on James, making a hotly-debated connection to the social justice statements from NBA players this past summer by stating:

… when NBA players rightfully took up the mantle of speaking for all Black people this past summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, they, unknowingly or not, agreed to be the face of all Black issues going forward. Black lives cannot truly matter to a person if they refuse to support vaccines for a disease that has killed nearly 80,000 Black people in a year’s time.

With respect to Johnson, it would be hard to imagine expressing this view if it was Evander Kane or P.K. Subban or any Black player in the NHL… or any player in the NHL, for that matter. James moves the meter like few others in the world, and the same can be said for the NBA, which played an outsized role in the first quarter of the pandemic. Though the NHL began to heed CDC warnings days before Rudy Gobert’s now-infamous press conference, it was the Utah Jazz center’s positive test that made America and much of the wider world take COVID more seriously.

Like their peer leagues, the NHL has had several clusters of outbreaks among its teams in their regular season. Yet the alarms aren’t being rung the same way at this critical moment as our rightful worries would have suggested. In all of this speculation of why that’s been the case, there is a deeper and more sinister question to be asked: do the alarmists even care at this point? If the demographics of the athletes are dictating concern, then the concerns themselves are selective, highly performative and incredibly problematic. We shouldn’t need CNN’s breaking news chryons about outbreaks in some sports to be reminded about the severity of the pandemic.

The affected players and coaches are going through hell. Though it appears that everyone can and will eventually be okay, we are still discovering the long-term affects of COVID and there’s a chance that at least one person that will become a COVID long-hauler. While Canada has far more people to worry about, there are significant lessons for public-facing institutions such as pro sports leagues to learn from this frightening scenario.

Unsurprisingly, our media at-large may need some education as well.

Jason Clinkscales is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whole Game. All praise, money and cookies can be sent to @asportsscribe while all criticisms can be sent to someone else.

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