CALGARY, Alberta — Jan. 8 is a hard start date, 50% capacity in arenas is no longer a requirement, and a doctor from the NHL’s Edmonton bubble has been brought on board to advise. Those were some of the main takeaways when WHL commissioner Ron Robison conducted a Zoom press conference on Thursday to discuss the league’s new plans for the 2020-21 season.
The WHL announced via press release Wednesday that Jan. 8 is the season’s new start date — the season was originally scheduled to begin Sept. 25, but that start date was pushed back to Oct. 2 and then to Dec. 4 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The release also announced that games would be played strictly within divisional boundaries.
On Thursday Robison provided further detail into what that all means.
“Our regular season will start Friday, Jan. 8. That is a firm start date, not a tentative date,” Robison said. “As we continue to work with the various governments and health authorities within our jurisdictions 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 the details around our schedule. We’re making very good progress, our health and safety protocols have been well received. But as everyone is well aware, we’re at different stages in different provinces and states within our region and we’re going to need some additional time to work out some of those details before we can release the information on our actual schedule for the season.”
One detail Robison did reveal is that a May 2 date has been set for the end of the season, allowing for a maximum of 50 regular-season games. He said the league is committed to playing all its games within divisional boundaries, even if there is an improvement with the coronavirus situation, meaning the Everett Silvertips will exclusively face the Seattle Thunderbirds, Tri-City Americans, Spokane Chiefs and Portland Winterhawks. No discussions have taken place yet on what the postseason may look like.
Robison said further details on the schedule are expected to be released in mid-to-late November.
Among the reasons why Jan. 8 was chosen as the start date is because it comes after Christmas, meaning players won’t need to travel home for the holidays and will therefore remain in a controlled environment for the duration of the season, as well as the fact it aligns better for players who are in school.
When the WHL made its last announcement on Aug. 6, which set a target start date of Dec. 4, Robison said the league would need all of its arenas to be open to at least 50% spectator capacity for the season to begin, as that would be the only way it would be financially viable for the league’s teams. On Wednesday he backed off that requirement.
“(Fifty percent capacity) is our objective, but we recognize that 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. But the number may be significantly lower than 50%, just given the health restrictions on various provinces and states currently.
“There’s going to be significant financial losses for all our clubs,” Robison added. “We know we’re going to be dealing with limited capacity far lower than we’re normally accustomed to, and that will cause some challenges. I don’t believe we’re at risk of losing any franchises, but it will be a difficult situation for our teams to work their way through.”
Robison said all games would be streamed online so that fans can watch, even if fans aren’t allowed into the buildings.
The WHL will be hoping to have better luck with the start of its season than the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) had. The QMJHL, which like the WHL is one of the three leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey Leagues, began play on Oct. 2. However, the league has seen several teams experience coronavirus infection outbreaks, prompting the league to suspend play in its Quebec-based divisions until at least Oct. 28.
Knowing the types of challenges that lie ahead, the WHL has brought Dr. Dhiren Naidu on board to help advise the league on coronavirus-related issues. Naidu served as the chief on-site medical officer of the NHL’s Edmonton bubble during the NHL’s return to play, during which there were zero positive tests. Naidu will be involved in creating the league’s protocols around issues such as testing and what happens should anyone test positive.
“(Naidu’s) experience with the NHL as the chief medical person in charge of the hub in Edmonton, that immediate experience will be extremely important,” Robison said.
“One of the reasons we wanted to bring on a chief medical advisor at this time is not only to work with the health authorities on what the actual protocol will become, but to determine things such as testing and whether or not that will be required at any particular stage,” Robison added. “We have a pretty extensive screening process that we’ll go through, but we haven’t landed on what our actual testing requirements will be. Certainly the players will be tested prior to the start of the season, and if they show any symptoms at any time they’ll be tested immediately and isolated if necessary.”