WHL commissioner looking forward to return of league play

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald WHL commissioner Rob Robison presents the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy to the Prince Albert Raiders leadership group of Parker Kelly, Brayden Pachal, Zack Hayes and Sean Montgomery in March 2019.

It has been a long 12 months for all parties in the Western Hockey League since the COVID-19 pandemic brought play to a halt on March 12, 2020.

The waiting game is just about over for the league as three divisions have received approval to return to play, with the Alberta-based Central Division set to start a 24-game campaign on Friday, Feb. 26.

“We’re very excited to have hockey back and to have our WHL players back on the ice,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said. “It’s been a very difficult and long process, but we are pleased to be in the position where we are.

“It’s a privilege to get the opportunity to play and we’ve very excited to now have three of our four divisions up and running.”

In addition to the Central Division, the WHL’s East Division is set to resume on March 12, while the U.S. Division will begin play on March 19.

“Each province (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and each state (Oregon and Washington) are in different stages in terms of dealing with the pandemic and we have to respect the fact that the health authorities in each jurisdiction are under a great deal of pressure on a number of different levels,” Robison said. “We’re just one of a number of groups that are looking for approval.

“We appreciated the cooperation that we’ve received from the governments and the health authorities in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. We still have one more division to go (B.C.) and we’ve had great discussions there as we look forward to hopefully starting play there soon.”

While the Central and U.S. Division clubs will travel to different arenas for their games, the seven-team East Division will have all their games held at the Brandt Centre in Regina.

“There were two key considerations for the hub centre to work,” Robison said. “One of them was getting the approval from the provincial healthy authority and the other was the quality of the arena facility, which really stood out in Regina.

“The Brandt Centre has the ability to accommodate dressing rooms for all seven teams and the practice facility (the Co-operators Centre) is adjacent to the building. When you look at it from what’s the best location from a risk mitigation point of view, Regina had a lot of areas where things made sense for all parties involved.”

Teams have also been able to adapt on the fly to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Calgary Hitmen are playing out of the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex on Tsuut’ina Nation as the Calgary Flames and the Stockton Heat are using the Scotiabank Saddledome, while the Red Deer Rebels’ players will be living out of the Westerner Park Centrium during the entire season.

“Each division and each centre is different and we’ve already seen some unique ways to address the challenges that are being presented, in addition to minimizing the risk for each community and for each team,” Robison said.

“In the case of Regina, everyone is going to be staying at the University of Regina with each team having a dedicated floor.”

Although no spectators will be allowed at the games, the league is planning to introduce a new WHL Live streaming package to help fans follow their teams.

“There’s never been a more important time to deliver a great quality broadcast to our fans, especially with no access to the facilities,” Robison said. “That was another consideration when we chose Regina as they have a high quality production out of the Brandt Centre.”

As the league worked on their Return to Play plans, they have kept a close eye on things have gone with the NHL and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as they’ve resumed action.

“We’ve been in constant contact with the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) through all of this, especially when it comes to the QMJHL and their experiences thus far,” Robison said. “The NHL has been very helpful through this process and we have to give them a lot of credit for establishing the bubble concept successfully in Toronto and Edmonton during last year’s playoffs.

“We also learned a lot from Hockey Canada and their bubble for the World Juniors in Edmonton over Christmas. We’ve looked at all of these situations and have adopted the best practices to do what’s best for all parties involved.”

In addition to waiting for approval for the B.C. Division’s return, the only other major question mark over the 2021-21 campaign is if there will be a post-season.

“As of right now, no decision has been made on post-season play,” Robison said. “The Memorial Cup is still up in the air and we’re in discussions with the CHL on where that stands.

“Our focus now is on the regular season and delivering 24 games for our players to help with their development.”

The Oshawa Generals and the Soo Greyhounds both made bids for the 2021 Memorial Cup early last year, but that process came to a halt due to the pandemic.

The Ontario Hockey League, which both teams compete in, has yet to make an official announcement on their 2020-21 campaign.