‘January 8 is a firm start date:’ Robison

WHL commissioner speaks to the media about upcoming season

The WHL will start its 2020-21 season on Jan. 8.

After tentative target start dates of Oct. 2 and Dec. 4 were announced earlier in the summer, the Western Hockey League has set the second Friday of the new year as the opening night for campaign.

“That is a firm start date,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said during a virtual press conference on Thursday. “As we continue to work with the various governments and health authorities within our jurisdictions (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon) on some of the final touches and other issues we need to address with them, we will continue to do that in order to finalize details around our schedule.

“We’re making very good progress and our safety protocols have been well received. We are in different stages in each of our provinces and states and we’ll need some additional time to work on those details before we can release information on the actual schedule.

“We’re excited to have all of our players returning to our 22 locations after Christmas to being their training and some exhibition games leading into our season openers.”

This year’s schedule, which is expected to be released in mid-to-late November, will feature a maximum of 50 games instead of the usual 68 and will run until early May.

The league also announced that all regular season games will take place within the boundaries of their four divisions, which is similar to the format that is currently used by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The one major change involves the East Division, as the Swift Current Broncos will move from the Central Division to play the other four teams in Saskatchewan (Moose Jaw Warriors, Prince Albert Raiders, Regina Pats and Saskatoon Blades) and the two Manitoba-based clubs (Brandon Wheat Kings and Winnipeg Ice).

The Central Division will feature the league’s Alberta clubs (Calgary Hitmen, Edmonton Oil Kings, Lethbridge Hurricanes, Medicine Hat Tigers and Red Deer Rebels), while the B.C. Division (Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets, Prince George Cougars, Vancouver Giants and Victoria Royals) and U.S. Division (Everett Silvertips, Portland Winterhawks, Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans) remain intact.

“We’ve tried to minimize the number of overnight stays as much as we can, which is one of the reasons why we took steps to realign the divisions so that we can stay under the provincial and state travel boundaries,” Robison said.

“When it comes to the East Division, the health officials in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have been very co-operative with the situation that we find ourselves in, especially when it comes to the two Manitoba teams (the Wheat Kings and Ice) that need those inter-provincial games. One of the areas we are working through right now and one of the reasons that we can’t announce the schedule yet is that we still need to gain the approval for inter-provincial travel. We expect that to happen soon though.”

Further details on the league’s playoff format and how that would fall in line with the Memorial Cup, which is expected to be held in mid-June in either Oshawa or Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., will be announced at a later date.

In terms of the amount of fans that are allowed at games, the WHL is still looking to obtain a 50 per cent fan capacity in their venues, though the season may start with less than that.

“That’s our objective but we recognize that it will ultimately be determined by the health authorities through our discussions with them,” Robison said.

“Those discussions are ongoing and we’re looking forward to getting some clarification on that soon. However, the number may be significantly lower than 50 per cent due to the health restrictions in the various provinces and states currently.”

The WHL has also been keeping a close eye on the QMJHL’s return to play over the last few weeks, which has seen the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and Sherbrooke Phoenix suspend activities due to COVID-19 outbreaks and an announcement on Wednesday that all 12 teams based in Quebec have postponed games until Oct. 28 due to half of the franchises being located in red zones, where cases have started to increase.

“We’ve been in constant contact with the Canadian Hockey League to see how they are managing different circumstances, especially with how the QMJHL is working through the positive tests and the adjustments that they’ve made with certain teams being in heightened areas of concern,” Robison said.

Robison also touched on the recent comments by Ontario’s minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries Lisa MacLeod, who said that the Ontario Hockey League would need to remove all body contact in order to have a season.

“There have also been no comments of the nature that have come our way,” Robison said.

“I think everyone understands how we play the game here in the WHL and we don’t anticipate those types of questions to come up.”

Around the WHL

In addition to the return to play plans, Robison touched on a few other topics during Thursday’s press conference.

The league is currently working with public health agencies on how to manage the entry of American and European players to cross back into Canada for the start of training camps ahead of the Jan. 8 regular season start date.

“We’re hoping to have some news on that very soon, but that involves making sure that we’re following the protocols are put in place in each province,” Robison said.

Those comments came a day after Quebec Remparts general manager and head coach Patrick Roy expressed his displeasure with what he believes was a lack of help from the CHL in terms of allowing QMJHL teams to bring their imports over.

There have been no discussions as of yet in terms of allowing current WHL players to suit up in various Junior A leagues around Western Canada, though that may be a talking point during a general managers meeting next week.

“We’ve allowed players to practice and train with Junior A clubs, but they haven’t been allowed to play games,” Robison said.

“If a player was an affiliated player last year (such as Moose Jaw Warriors blueliner Denton Mateychuk and Winnipeg Ice forward Conor Geekie) they are allowed to play in Junior A (which the pair are now for the Steinbach Pistons and the Virden Oil Capitals respectively).”

The Portland Winterhawks ownership situation remains unresolved at the moment, but the league is optimistic that progress will be made in the coming weeks.

“There’s several offers that have been made and there’s groups that have expressed strong interest, but they haven’t reached the levels that they need to qualify for the sale for a variety of reasons,” Robison said. “We’re working closely with the team to make sure that there’s not disruption to operations as they remain in receivership.”