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Miller: Player safety 'impossible to achieve' with gruelling Canucks schedule

VANCOUVER — J.T. Miller says it will be tough for him to return to action when the Vancouver Canucks play their first game in over three weeks.

VANCOUVER — J.T. Miller says it will be tough for him to return to action when the Vancouver Canucks play their first game in over three weeks.

He can't imagine how hard it will be for his teammates who have just recovered from a COVID-19 infection to play a gruelling end to the season while trying to stay healthy.

"This is going to be a really tough challenge," Miller said on a video conference Wednesday, a day before the Canucks were set to return to practice for the first time since a COVID-19 outbreak tore through their locker room. 

"Even for me, skating a couple of times, my lungs are screaming and not in game-shape at all right now from sitting around and not doing much.

"I couldn't imagine what these guys are going to have to go through to get back and be ready to play at a high level."

Twenty-two Canucks players and four members of the coaching staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 30. The team hasn't played since March 24, with eight games postponed up to April 14.

The Canucks were down to seven players on the NHL's COVID protocol list released Wednesday: defencemen Jalen Chatfield, Alex Edler and Nate Schmidt and forwards Jayce Hawryluk, Nils Hoglander, Zack MacEwen and Jake Virtanen.

While the trend shows the Canucks are coming out of the outbreak, Miller said he isn't sure such a quick return to action is best for the health of the players returning from infection.

Due to the missed games, the Canucks will have to play a stretch of 19 games in 30 days, including six sets of back-to-backs, in order to finish their schedule.

"It's kind of frustrating if I'm being 100 per cent honest with you," Miller said. "We try to talk about the No. 1 priority is the players' health and the families' safety, and it's almost impossible to achieve that with what they've asked us to do here on our return. 

"I can't speak on behalf of the guys who have had COVID, but I talk to my teammates a lot. For them to come back to play is going to be very challenging and not very safe if you're asking me. And I'm sure there's other people that would agree with that."

Vancouver's return starts with a home game Friday night against Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers. The North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs are in Vancouver the following night.

"We're playing two of the best players in the entire world on Friday, and one of the best teams in the league on Saturday," Miller said.

"It's not ideal for anybody," he added. "But we have a job to do I guess."

Miller called the past year in the NHL "the most extreme case of circumstances."

"Starting back in the bubble, to playing a half-season, to not going down to the United States, you go down the list and this isn't an excuse, but this is just reality," he said.

"And the shutdown right now and forcing us to play 19 (games) in 30 or 31 days, and think about the playoffs when guys are still recovering from this ... it's frustrating and I just want to make sure everybody's priorities are in the right place."

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021.

The Canadian Press