‘It will be very important for the Canucks to know exactly who’s there, be able to trace them in case anything happens and have a vaccine passport.” — Dr. Brian Conway

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Love them or loathe them, it’s easy to recall a fond or forgetful Montreal Canadiens memory.

The storied NHL franchise had a remarkable run of a record 10 overtime triumphs en route to a Stanley Cup championship in 1993 — the last Canadian club to capture the league crown — and the current pace of post-season success has even captured the imagination of one of the country’s top coronavirus experts, who doubles as an ardent Habs admirer.

As much as Dr. Brian Conway, president and medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, is buoyed by the escalating number of COVID-19 vaccinations and plunging virus positivity rates in most Canadian provinces — plus the promise of housing fans in the fall in Rogers Arena — the Canucks’ season-ticket subscriber has been swept up by Canadiens hockey hysteria.

And for obvious reasons.

“Those of us who grew up in Montreal still remember Steve Shutt, Jacques Lemaire and Guy Lafleur and that era,” Conway said Monday. “I don’t do the previous era when my dad would tell me about The Rocket (Maurice Richard) and Butch (Emile Bouchard), but there’s something about this franchise that conjures up ghosts of the past.

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“It warms the heart. My most recent memory is not of 1993, but 1986 when a young Patrick Roy basically carried them because they had no business winning it (Cup) that year, but the stars aligned, teams got knocked off and they wound up with easier matchups.”

The harder passage for Conway from a professional perspective has been helping the medical community and general populace conquer COVID-19 and variants that fuel the virus.

A hopeful sign for epidemiologists and hockey fans was the national immigration ministry deciding last week to open the Canada-U.S. border for the next round of the NHL playoffs. Teams on charter flights to this country are no longer required to quarantine for 14 days and will be housed in a modified bubble concept — daily testing and no interaction with the general populace — and it’s a window on a slowly changing world.

The 2,500 fans allowed in the Bell Centre are a small fraction of the 21,302 capacity, but it’s a big deal. Patrons must socially distance from those outside their pod, including arena corridors, and those five years of age and older must wear masks. And only bottled water is sold at concessions.

The Canucks’ hopeful target of 5,000 fans in Rogers Arena by September is now more logical than wistful with a first-vaccination blitz and a rolling seven-day average of daily positive COVID-19 cases at 177 — the lowest since Oct. 20.

“The things we should be looking at to make that possible is for the (COVID-19) numbers to keep going down, and whenever we have hot spots, we’re able to extinguish them and there are no new variants,” stressed Conway. “Surrey is a good example. A few weeks ago, there were 1,000 cases a day and now it’s below 100.

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“If that happens over the next couple of months, and we can cautiously reopen, it will be very important for the Canucks to know exactly who’s there, to be able to trace them in case anything happens and have a vaccine passport. It’s realistic to make these plans and there’s a high chance they will succeed.”

Canucks chief operating officer Trent Carroll is optimistic.

“We are continuing to prepare for all possibilities, including plans for a minimum of 5,000 fans to ultimately a full arena, as soon as we receive the green light to safely do so,” he said Monday. “So far, the province’s restart plan and vaccine rollout has been extremely encouraging and we hope to have a big crowd on opening night in October.”

As for the present, there are plenty of plaudits for La Belle Province that was plunged into a 9:30 p.m. curfew as the country’s hottest outbreak spot to get virus numbers down and hopes up. On Sunday, Quebec reported just 179 new infections and no new deaths, a first for both measurements since September.

“It makes sense what they’re doing in Montreal,” added Conway. “What drives the pandemic is community-based transmission and the ability to identify cases, interrupt transmission networks and exclude variants from the environment. Quebec, and particularly Montreal, has done a great job and the type of reopening they have is certainly consistent with public health science.

“They have the (tracing) ability to find these people if anything happens.”

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What about that provincial health authority loosening more restrictions?

“There would have to be a community-based immunity with a certain percentage of first and second doses, and if we think practically, by Labour Day three-quarters of Canadians or more will be double-vaccinated and we should aim for that,” cautioned Conway.

However, there’s an unfolding cautionary tale with continuous virus rates in Manitoba seven to eight times greater than those in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Quebec. And those 18,081 fans who jammed T-Mobile in Las Vegas are the direct result of placing pleasure before safety as the U.S. continues to move swiftly to open the economy at all costs.

“It’s America,” summed up Conway. “They’re crossing their fingers and giving away beer and guns to get more people vaccinated. Nevada has had an upswing and there’s a hesitancy rate of 40 per cent of the population in some states. And if we’re going to mix epidemics, we have to have similar rates of transmission and ability to trace cases across the border and block entry of the variants.”

By comparison, 70 per cent of Canadians have had their first vaccine dose and nine per cent have had a second vaccination.

Meanwhile, too much of the rest of the world is falling behind with vaccines or just doesn’t have the access. And that’s where the variants are developing in Vietnam or Brazil, or spreading rapidly like in Britain’s reopening.

“It was done for a lot of social, political and other reasons and they were unable to block flights from India — or chose not to — and that promoted the introduction of variants,” Conway said of the case counts escalating by two-thirds last week in England. “Those are the issues we need to be most concerned about.”

So is the messaging.

Whether it’s free lottery tickets, beer or even guns, Americans have to be enticed to do what should come naturally — take care of their health before taking up risky activities that promote community spread.

“To me, it’s public health versus the health of the public,” said Conway. “The public has decided it’s going to do this and there’s no amount of pleading from public-health authorities that’s going to change their minds.”

bkuzma@postmedia.com

twitter.com/@benkuzma

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