The fate of the 2020-21 season has reached a level of desperation where bubble-style, centralized hubs could be a means to get the WHL back on the ice.
The league announced last week it was planning to go ahead with a reduced 24-game regular-season schedule, although it made no mention of a start date.
Making a schedule and sticking to it has been impossible in the pandemic. The WHL, which was forced to halt the 2019-20 season with a handful of regular-season games remaining, has missed several start dates.
Now, what was once unthinkable is being discussed: A bubble format for the East Division, employing Saskatoon and Regina as hubs, might be the safest way to gain approval from provincial health authorities to play again. A similar intradivisional format is being seriously considered for the B.C. Division, with Kamloops and Kelowna serving as potential hosts.
"I think kids want to play, coaches want to coach, GMs want to GM and have a little bit of normality in their world," Swift Current Broncos head coach and director of hockey operations Dean Brockman said Wednesday. "Do I think there’s the potential it could happen? You know, in this crazy world, anything could happen.
"I don’t think it would be a bad thing. I think you’d have to obviously calculate the finances through it."
In the East, the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border is a major impediment if travel between the two provinces remains forbidden for hockey teams — isolating the Winnipeg Ice and Brandon Wheat Kings from their five division rivals in Saskatchewan. Naturally, the WHL would like an open border.
"I think any discussion about teams getting into hubs and teams getting into bubbles is, to be honest, a last resort for us to be able to offer a season for our players," said Moose Jaw Warriors general manager Alan Millar. "But everything’s on the table in terms of... trying to make the season work again for our players, which ultimately looks like it’s going to be a development season for them."
Should the current health orders be relaxed enough to allow games, a closed border would leave the Ice and Wheat Kings with an unacceptable solution — playing each other 24 times. On the other hand, relocating the teams to Saskatchewan with players living in hotels instead of being billetted might be the safer route.
"Our priorities and the protocols we’re working through with our provincial governments and health authorities is for the seven teams in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to play in their own centres," said Millar. "That’s our priority, that’s our goal. Our league office seems to believe that based on their discussions with their respective governments that’s where we’re headed."
Both the Manitoba and Saskatchewan restrictions will be reviewed when they expire later this month. In B.C., where the existing health orders expire Feb. 5, a bigger play seems more likely.
"I think we have a pretty good understanding amongst the five teams that we would like to move two of them for sure," said Kelowna Rockets owner and GM Bruce Hamilton, noting travel times associated with the Victoria Royals and Prince George Cougars are at issue. "...I think just the sheer costs of going to Victoria, because you’re dealing with a ferry and you’re not getting off (Vancouver Island) until the next day, generally. So I think it’s better for us as a group to try and probably get more contained. And that’s without it being a full-on bubble."
To streamline travel and thereby improving safety, the Cougars and Royals would move to Kelowna or Kamloops. The Vancouver Giants would join the others or decide to remain at their Langley, B.C., base.
"First and foremost, it has to be safe is the biggest thing that we’ve been dealing with here," added Hamilton, the influential chairman of the league’s board of governors. "You’ve got to go through all the approvals."
Hamilton remained hopeful the season can be salvaged.
"I think we’re going to try to play — it’s just when," he said. "I think it’ll be how long we have to wait and whether it makes any sense if we have to wait a really long time. But we decided as a group that we want to try and give the guys an opportunity to play some meaningful games.
"There’s a group of them that are going to finish their careers with us and there’s a group that are coming up that want to get some kind of foot up, exposure-wise. That’s our goal as owners. There’s a significant price tag attached to it and everybody’s committed to trying to make it happen."
CITY FILES LAWSUIT: The City of Cranbrook is suing the owners of the WHL and the Winnipeg Ice over the circumstances of a franchise relocation following the 2018-19 season.
The Canadian Press reported Wednesday a civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court alleges both the Ice and WHL are responsible for breaking a lease agreement scheduled to operate until the end of the 2022-23 season.
Greg Fettes, the team’s chairman and governor, and Matt Cockell, the club’s president and GM, bought the Kootenay Ice from the Chynoweth family in 2017.
The lawsuit said the city lost arena rent, a percentage of ad revenue and ticket sales when the franchise was shifted to Winnipeg.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.