WHL forced to postpone start of season again

Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre could stay dark, at least for the Victoria Royals, well into the new year. The Western Hockey League season has been delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic. It was set to begin Jan. 8 after several earlier start dates were missed.

“It’s not a hockey issue. It’s a public health issue,” said Royals head coach and GM Dan Price.

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“It’s communal and affects the players, staff and billet families.”

Price said the indefinite nature of the delay is not of concern to him: “I believe what the league has said that it can’t [set a firm restart date] until it gets more information from the health authorities and it won’t likely get that information until the new year. The league first needs that information. It is doing every single thing it can to play when it is safe to do so.”

The current B.C. pandemic restrictions, for instance, run until midnight on Jan. 8. Complicating matters is the number of governments, boards and authorities the league is dealing with. The WHL straddles four provinces and two U.S. states.

“Given the public health restrictions that are currently in effect, we are not in a position to determine a new target date for our season,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said in a statement.

“We will continue to consult with health authorities to ­determine when it is safe and responsible to get our season started. We continue to make every effort to get our season started, but our first priority has always been the health and safety of our players, and ­everyone associated with the WHL.”

The Memorial Centre, which was used as a homeless shelter from the summer through Oct. 1, does not even have ice laid at the moment.

“We are supporting our players the best way we can in their home communities,” said Price.

“We are doing a lot of video work with them. With access to facilities becoming limited, players are back to doing a lot of individual training at home and outside.”

Given the stated vaccine rollout timeline, winter sports such as hockey could be in trouble, while prospects are looking much better for spring and ­summer sports in 2021. But Price said it isn’t over.

“I am very optimistic, while realizing we can’t be presumptive,” he said.

There are, however, nine WHL players who will be playing this month and into the early new year, including Langford’s Dylan Garand, goaltender for the Kamloops Blazers. The nine are on the Canadian team roster for the 2021 IIHF world junior championship tournament, which begins Christmas Day in a bubble in Edmonton.

But when those nine WHL players will be able to return to their teams post-worlds is anybody’s guess.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League started this fall but suspended play Dec. 1 to Jan. 3 because of ­COVID-19 outbreaks in the league.

The Ontario Hockey League, the other circuit in the major-junior Canadian Hockey League with the QMJHL and WHL, has ­targeted Feb. 4 for the start of its season.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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