The Western Hockey League will remain dark for the rest of 2020. The 2020-21 season has become simply the 2021 season as the WHL pushed back the start date to Jan. 8.
This is the third time the season start has been altered. The WHL had originally targeted Oct. 2 and then Dec. 4. The season normally begins in September. The Victoria Royals, meanwhile, will only play teams within the B.C. Division. The WHL announced Wednesday all regular-season games will be played within the boundaries of each of the four divisions. The B.C. Division consists of the Royals, Vancouver Giants, Kelowna Rockets, Kamloops Blazers and Prince George Cougars.
“This displays flexibility and contingency planning,” said Victoria GM and head coach Dan Price.
“Everyone recognizes that the health and safety of everybody involved comes first and is the most important consideration.”
There are no shortcuts. Not that it makes it any easier for those whose lives and schedules have been disrupted.
“Everyone in the world is frustrated by the pandemic and wants a return to normal. Our league is no different,” said Price.
“This is a solid plan moving forward. Every game will be a four-point game against natural rivals. It’s going to feel like the playoffs right from the start.”
The league laid out only the broad strokes of the season and did not indicate if a full 68-game schedule would be possible. “The WHL continues to work with each of the governments and health authorities in the provinces and states in Western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, respectively, on obtaining the necessary approvals to commence play. Details regarding the schedule of games in each of the four WHL divisions will be announced at a later date,” the league said, in a statement.
The WHL’s previous insistence on 50 percent arena capacity, in terms of fans, is also in limbo as the league added: “A final determination has not yet been made as to whether spectators will be permitted to attend WHL games as this will be subject to the approval of the health authorities in each jurisdiction.”
It highlights the massive logistical ordeal facing the WHL of dealing with the different health authority safety rules and protocols across four provinces and two states.
B.C. Division play, for example, will be complicated by provincial regulations. This province’s Phase 3 of the return to sports allows for team-versus-team play on a regional basis in cohorts of up to four teams. Two-week quarantine breaks are required before the teams can rotate into new cohorts of up to four teams. In that format, five is the most awkward number of clubs. The five-team B.C. Division will have to be divided into cohort groups of two and three teams at a time.
“It just increases that playoff feel [in a two-team cohort],” said Price.
“It really is a mini-playoffs. We sometimes play the Vancouver Giants three times in three nights in normal seasons and those games are intense and great. This will be something similar.”
The WHL’s East Division will consist of the seven Saskatchewan and Manitoba teams, the Central Division the five Alberta teams and the U.S. Division the five teams based in Washington and Oregon. Regarding the latter, the U.S.-Canada border is closed to all but essential travel. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a Winnipeg radio station interview Wednesday that he plans to keep the Canadian border closed as long as COVID infections remain high in the U.S. Most WHL players are Canadians. How that affects the league’s U.S. Division rosters remains to be seen.
ICE CHIPS: The WHL Development Combine takes place at The Q Centre on Friday and Saturday.