WHL commissioner Robison, Royals look ahead to pandemic season challenges

Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison did not sound optimistic the league’s request for spectator attendance, of up to 50 percent of arena capacity, will be approved by health authorities across four provinces and two U.S. states.

“The number may be significantly lower,” said Robison.

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That will have an impact on team ledgers, including that of the Victoria Royals.

“These are very difficult circumstances and there will be significant financial losses for all our clubs, no question,” said Robison.

“The health authorities know that revenue stream is very important to our teams.”

The commissioner addressed the media in a Zoom call a day after the WHL announced it will begin the season Jan. 8.

“There are many challenges but that is a firm start date, not tentative,” said Robison, despite earlier targets of Oct. 2 and Dec. 4 not being met.

He said the schedule will be abbreviated to a maximum of 50 regular-season games for each team, from Jan. 8 to May 2, down from the normal 68 games. All teams will play within their own divisions, meaning Victoria will only meet Vancouver, Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George. Possible playoff formats have yet to be discussed. The 2021 Memorial Cup has been pushed back to mid-June from its regular mid-May time slot.

“We certainly anticipate completing the season and playoffs but that all depends on how this virus progresses,” said Robison.

A potential issue for the playoffs will be the involvement of the five teams in the U.S. Division. The Canada-U.S. border is currently closed to all but essential travel.

“Maybe we’ll have to crown four division champions [and leave it at that]. But hopefully by May, [the WHL champion] will be headed to Ontario for the Memorial Cup,” said Robison.

COVID has run through two teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — which comprises the CHL along with the WHL and Ontario Hockey League — causing the QMJHL to suspend league play in both its Quebec-based divisions until at least Oct. 28. Five of the six teams in the Maritime Division will keep playing.

“We are learning as [the QMJHL] goes through this process,” said Robison.

“We have to be prepared to adjust as need be in our [WHL] jurisdictions.”

All indications are a vaccine may be available in the first half of 2021 and almost certainly by the start of the 2021-22 season next September. Robison said there has been no decision on whether taking the vaccine, when it becomes available, will be mandatory for WHL players, coaches and training staff.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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