The Calgary Flames went into a defensive shell Tuesday in the face of an all-out attack from detractors who wanted to know why the NHL team got special H1N1 vaccinations while millions of Canadians have had to stand in line for hours waiting for theirs.
News that the Flames and their family members had been inoculated at a special clinic last Friday created instant uproar and a political scandal at the provincial legislature Tuesday. Politicians wanted to know how an NHL team was allowed to jump the queue and called for an investigation while an untold number of Calgarians called the Flames' front office to vent their anger.
The Flames released a statement and answered questions but never acknowledged any wrongdoing. "We sought counsel and guidance on this matter and determined it appropriate given the facts available at the time," the statement said pointing out it had all been arranged through Alberta Health Services. "We accept full responsibility for our actions and decisions."
When interviewed Tuesday, the Flames' players were of the same mindset and insisted they were only following instructions from the team. Flames captain Jarome Iginla said the players didn't believe, or even realize, they were cutting in front of those who may have been in high-risk groups in need of the vaccination.
"For us as a group of players, we were following the medical protocol given to us. Today, we can see … that they're stopping [the inoculations]and that there's a shortage," Iginla said. "So yeah, we can understand why people might be upset."
Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr admitted he was "pretty happy" to have received the shot.
"You're hearing all kinds of things - and having to go across the border [the Flames travelled to Dallas Tuesday] they say you might need it, so at that point, we had the option and I took it as a player."
Flames' president Ken King was adamant in his defence of the players saying, "Our players did not seek to avoid a line-up. They didn't ask for special attention, they followed the direction of our physicians, they followed the organization's direction."
King added the situation concerning the availability of the swine flu shots changed between Friday and Tuesday and noted that if the team had asked Alberta Health Service for the shots 72 hours ago it would have been declined.
"I think we would be declined," King told reporters, "not because of the backlash but because of the change in the need-based distribution program. It's a different program today than it was Friday."
The Flames are believed to be the only Canadian NHL team to have received vaccinations. In Edmonton, Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini said his team was still waiting to be vaccinated.
"I don't know when we're going to be able to get it. Hopefully soon," he said.
As many as eight Oilers players - from defenceman Ladislav Smid, the only confirmed case of the H1N1 strain on the team, to centre Shawn Horcoff - have been affected to some degree by the flu.
The Oilers have followed all the NHL's protocols to minimize the spread of flu through the team. In fact, according to Tambellini, they took the pro-active step of introducing precautionary measures back in training camp, knowing that H1N1 could be an issue that they'd need to deal with.
"This isn't something that just happened to us," Tambellini said. "We've been doing all these things since Day 1 - water bottles for every player, separate towels for every player. Our doctors and training staff have been on it since the start of the year."
Neither of Alberta's two CFL teams, the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos, has received H1N1 shots. Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton is making vaccinations available to World Cup team members later this week in Whistler, B.C., where they're currently training in preparation for the coming season. Bobsleigh pilots Pierre Lueders and Lyndon Rush said they would take the shot while women's pilot Helen Upperton was non-committal.
The reaction to the Flames' flu shots was especially contentious in the provincial government, where the Progressive Conservatives have already been under daily attack for their handling of the province's vaccination plan.
Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann called the special clinic set up for the Flames "a violation of the basic principles of public health care."
Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said it was outrageous the government let high-risk groups such as pregnant women and children stand in line for hours to get the shot while a small elite group received it with little effort. "Of course, the owners of the team stand to lose a lot of money if their players all get sick but I don't think that is as important as making sure that a pregnant mother or a child [doesn't]get severely sick or die from H1N1," Mason said.
Roman Cooney, a spokesman with Alberta Health Services, said the special clinic approved by "staff" for hockey players and their families "should not have happened … I am apologizing for a serious error in judgment."
With reports from Eric Duhatschek, Dawn Walton, Katherine O'Neill, Matthew Sekeres