A firm date — Jan. 8 — has been established for the start of the 2020-21 WHL regular season. But will there fans be in the stands?
League commissioner Ron Robison couldn’t answer that question Thursday. Earlier this year, WHL officials insisted 50 per cent capacity in every building in the 22-team loop was essential to making the season financially viable.
Robison said the 50 per cent figure is still the target.
"That’s our objective but we recognize ultimately that will be determined by the health authorities through our discussion with them," Robison told reporters during a conference call. "Those discussions are ongoing and we’re looking forward to getting some clarification on that soon but the number may be significantly lower than 50 per cent given the health restrictions that apply in various provinces and states currently."
A streaming service will be available for all games, with revenue generated going to the individual teams.
The WHL’s new chief medical adviser, Dr. Dhiren Naidu of Edmonton, will be overseeing the league’s response to the pandemic, which involves health authorities in four provinces and two U.S. states.
Crucial to the successful staging of the season is how the league deals with positive tests for players, a problem that recently forced the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to shutter its two Quebec divisions.
"As we’ve witnessed in the Quebec league, the virus does come and certainly occurs from time to time," said Robison. "We’re going to have to address that, and we’re prepared to adjust the schedules to isolate teams as required as we work our way through that. Our protocols do address what steps we would take in event that a positive test occurs."
Players will return to their teams after the Christmas break with a short pre-season to follow. Robison said teams will play up to 50 games — all within their own division — during a regular season concluding on May 2. Teams normally play a 68-game slate.
It’s still unknown when clubs would be required to cut down to three overagers or when the trade deadline will be. It usually lands on Jan. 10.
The Winnipeg Ice will play its East Division rivals from Brandon, Prince Albert, Regina, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, plus the Central Division’s Swift Current Broncos. The Broncos were added to streamline travel issues but moving between provinces remains problematic.
"The health officials in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have been very positive, very co-operative and very respectful of the position we find ourselves in," said Robison.
"With only two teams in Manitoba they’re isolated somewhat and need to play interprovincial games with Saskatchewan. That’s one of the areas we’re working through and one of the reasons we can’t be in position today to announce any details on the schedule because we still need to obtain approval for the travel."
Robison said the league expects a decision soon from both provinces.
A playoff format remains undetermined with the Canada-U.S. border closed and the Memorial Cup set for mid-June.
"That will really come to whether the border is open or not," said Robison. "The U.S.-Canadian border issue is significant because we have five U.S.-based teams... To develop a full playoff with all 22 member clubs involved, we would need to have the border open for that purpose. In the event we’re not successful with the border opening and there is a cancellation of the Memorial Cup, which we hope doesn’t happen, we would have to come up with a format for playoffs, which may include declaring four champions within our divisions."
Robison also said the WHL would not reconsider its decision to prevent roster players from finding alternate leagues to play. Currently, only affiliate players such as Winnipeg’s Conor Geekie (currently suiting up for the MJHL’s Virden Oil Capitals) are permitted to play for junior A teams.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.