WHL, BCHL close in on return-to-play plan

There are indications the Western Hockey League and B.C. Hockey League could open play amid the pandemic in early October.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau said this week his league is planning on a complete 68-game season with “a certain percentage of spectators” socially distanced in the seats. Courteau added the QMJHL intends to begin its season on Oct. 1, which is only about a week or two later than normal.

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The QMJHL is part of the 60-team Canadian Hockey League along with the WHL, which includes the Victoria Royals, and Ontario Hockey League. All three leagues had the latter portions of their 2019-20 regular seasons, and the playoffs, cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 CHL Memorial Cup national championship, scheduled for last month in Kelowna, was called off.

The Times Colonist reached out to WHL commissioner Ron Robison for comment about his league’s restart plans in light of the specifics offered by the fellow-CHL member QMJHL.

“At this time, we have no comment to offer,” Taylor Rocca, WHL director of communications, said in an email

“Our WHL annual general meeting is June 16-17, after which we may have details to share, but unfortunately nothing for certain considering the current circumstance.”

The Royals were also asked for comment but did not respond. The Victoria club currently has no president following the dismissal last month of Cam Hope.

The BCHL, which includes five teams in the Island Division, has been far more active and appointed a Return-to-Play Task Force. The Cowichan Valley Capitals and Nanaimo Clippers were set to meet in the Island final when the BCHL playoffs were cancelled in March.

“Once we are told we are allowed to resume play from Hockey Canada and the provincial government, we want to make sure we are ready to go,” said Steve Cocker, the BCHL executive director of competition and events.

A conditional go-ahead from the former came Thursday as Hockey Canada lifted its national ban on sanctioned activities and said it is up to the “13 regional members [including Saanichton-based BC Hockey] to work with local authorities to make final return-to-hockey decisions. We expect the timing of each member’s return to hockey will be different.”

The BCHL’s task force is considering its options for the reopening.

“This involves planning for several different scenarios, including start dates and attendance capacities, as directed by the health authorities,” said Cocker.

“Creating the task force allows us to be as prepared as possible for a safe return to play, whenever we get the green light.”

The province released its Return to Sport Guidelines this week after a review by WorkSafeBC and viaSport. The main guidelines of the first phase of the sports reopening concern maintaining physical distance, minimal sharing of equipment, focusing on skill development in small-group training and staying local for the moment.

The BCHL has been in contact with Premier John Horgan and Lisa Beare, the cabinet minister responsible for sport.

“We’ve had lengthy discussions with minister Beare and her office,” BCHL chairman Graham Fraser said in a statement.

“Upon their request, we also submitted a detailed return-to-play plan and they [Beare’s ministry] are in the process of reviewing it. Our call with Premier Horgan was also positive. He understands the importance of the BCHL to its 18 communities. Premier Horgan, along with minster Beare, heard our request for financial support and both understand our position. We will continue these discussions with the provincial government in the coming weeks.”

What is most interesting about QMJHL commissioner Courteau’s comments is his contention that socially-distanced fans will be allowed in the stands. In soccer, the Bundesliga in Germany has restarted with no fans. But the pro soccer leagues in Poland and Russia will restart this month and allow fans into the stadiums who are socially distanced up to 25 and 10 per cent of capacity, respectively.

But letting in fans for sporting events in Canada would depend on provincial health regulations being relaxed. B.C. currently has a regulation banning gatherings of more than 50 people.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

Twitter.com/tc_vicsports

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