In normal circumstances, hockey fans around the Western Hockey League will have marked Friday, Oct. 2 on their calendar in red ink to mark the start of the 2020-21 season.
However, that might not be the official start to the upcoming campaign as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold.
“A 68-game schedule is the clear direction that we want to achieve,” Commissioner Ron Robison said in a digital press conference on Thursday. “We’ve targeted Friday, Oct. 2 as an opening date, but we need all six jurisdictions (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon) to be ready to go in order to start our season our time.
“If certain jurisdictions aren’t ready to go, it may require us to have a later start date, which would mean that we would have to modify the playoff format and get co-operation from the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) to adjust the dates for the Memorial Cup. We feel like we could get the 68-game schedule if we start as late as early December, otherwise it could be very different than in previous seasons.”
While the approval from health authorities is a key component in returning to action, the other important factor for the season to start on time is the amount of fans that are allowed in the stands.
“We’re a ticket-driven league,” Robison said. “Unlike other leagues that have different sources of income or broadcast revenue, we rely on spectators in order to make things work.
“We’re looking at having a 50 per cent capacity for that to occur. If we can’t reach that certain level that will allow teams to operate, then we will not be in a position to start play on time. We need that be resolved before we can commence play, but we’re confident that we will get that and we know that it will take time to reach a solution.”
As of Thursday, the 2020-21 schedule is penciled in like a regular campaign would take place, but that is also subject to change.
“It will largely be dedicated by our discussions with the health authorities, especially as things develop with border crossing, quarantine situations and restrictions in place that may be unique for cities, provinces or states,” Robison said.
“We are committed to starting as soon as we possibly can. It may be a traditional looking schedule but there other decisions that could be made that we are considering, such as having more divisional play to start and the opening things up as time goes on.”
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League had previously stated they are hoping to start their campaign on Oct. 1 with a certain percentage of spectators in the stands, while the Ontario Hockey League has yet to announce a return date.
“We’re committed to having a season and playing games this year,” Robison said.
“The timing that we will arrive at these decisions though is outside of control. It all depends on our discussions with the health authorities in each of our jurisdictions.”
In other news, a new streaming service will be introduced across the Canadian Hockey League for next year, with further details to be announced.
Robison also revealed on Thursday that a new program is in the works for the upcoming season that will be addressing racism in hockey, which has been in the works for the last few months and has seen input from players in the league.
Also, an announcement in regards to the ownership situation with the Portland Winterhawks is expected to be made in the coming weeks.
“We have received very strong interest so far and the receivership situation that the team is currently in isn’t an indication on the state of the franchise,” Robison said.
“We’re hoping to be in a position to select a successful candidate later this month or in early July and we’re hoping to have everything resolved as quickly as possible.”