Victoria Royals GM and head coach Dan Price and former Royals coach Dave Lowry, now bench boss of the Brandon Wheat Kings, texted each other over the weekend. It was the usual exchange many in the Western Hockey League are having. “We asked each other ‘have you heard anything?’ We’re just waiting,” said Price.
The WHL sits idle while the B.C. Hockey League found a way to begin exhibition play last weekend amid the pandemic and the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey begins play this week.
The WHL has a tentative regular season start date of Dec. 4, just three days after the BCHL’s. But BCHL teams will have played 14 exhibition games each by that point. The WHL is so far yet from hitting the ice that the Royals’ Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre is still being used as a temporary homeless shelter.
“If we get the green light to start Dec. 4, I am guessing mid-to-late November for training camp, but that’s just me speculating,” said Price.
The Ontario Hockey League, set to begin the regular season Dec. 1, has announced Nov. 15 as the start of training camps.
The camps will be smaller than usual when they open. The 16- and 17-year-old players have started high school in their home communities. So don’t expect any young, hopeful bubble players in camp. Only those sure to make the team.
“We are going to have to be selective, narrowing it to players likely to make the team, so as not to disrupt high school studies for the others,” said Price.
“Some of the players are studying online, so they have portability.”
Both the WHL and OHL have American franchises – the WHL a five-team U.S. Division – so the border situation must also be factored into the equation. The border is currently closed to all but essential travel until Oct. 21. An extension to Nov. 21 would scramble the WHL’s current plans.
“The border issue is above my pay grade,” said Price.
That underscores how much is out of the hands of coaches, players and owners. That includes the WHL’s request to the health authorities of four provinces and two states to allow for spectator attendance of up to 50 per cent of arena capacity. As unlikely as that is to be granted across so many jurisdictions, at least to start the regular season, Price remains optimistic.
“Everybody is hoping for a business model that works,” he said.
The BCHL’s reluctant solution of charging players fees to play this season, to make up for the gate shortfall, is not as practical in the major-junior WHL, OHL and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which are bigger businesses.
Price and his staff are keeping in touch with the Royals’ players, and monitoring their individual training, through online sessions. Even with little or no exhibition play, Price said his charges will be ready for Dec. 4.
“We are monitoring all of them closely and our players are as fit as they have ever been,” he said.
“This extra recovery time can be an advantage. I think the play is going to be at a higher level than it has ever been.”
He pointed to the NHL playoffs in empty buildings in Edmonton and Toronto.
“Jim Hiller [Port Alberni native and New York Islanders assistant coach, who previously coached with Price in the WHL] told me the intensity of play was really striking,” said Price, who said he expect no different at the junior level, fans or not.
Price was asked if it’s chafing to see the BCHL already playing, and the VIJHL about to, while the WHL is still at least six weeks away from training camp.
“We’re not frustrated,” he said.
“Junior A and Junior B have always started earlier than major-junior. Those leagues have always been already going by the time we start each season. Watching those leagues play gives us a sense of anticipation.”