The Western Hockey League is targeting Oct. 2 as the start date for the 2020-21 season, and the league is committed to playing a full 68-game schedule. However, the league will need to receive the go-ahead from the governments of all six states and provinces that comprise the league that it’s safe to play games before resuming, and the league won’t play games until arenas are allowed to open to fans at approximately 50% capacity.
Those were the takeaways from WHL commissioner Ron Robison’s Zoom press conference from Calgary, Alberta, on Thursday, during which the commissioner spoke about the league’s plan for returning to play amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
The league, of which the Everett Silvertips are a member, had to shut down in March because of the coronavirus outbreak, forcing the cancellation of the conclusion of the 2019-20 regular season and all of the 2020 postseason.
On Wednesday the league issued a press release saying it was targeting Oct. 2 as the start date for 2020-21, and on Thursday Robison expanded upon the conditions that would be required for the season to begin. Health districts from all of the league’s six jurisdictions (Washington and Oregon in the United States; British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada) would need to declare it’s safe to play games — and to do so with fans in the stands.
“Obviously as a spectator-driven league we need spectators in order to make it work,” Robison said. “That is a key criteria. There are essentially two criteria to our return-to-play protocol. No. 1 is to demonstrate to the health authorities in each of our jurisdictions that we can return in a safe and responsible manner, taking into account always the health and safety of our players and everyone associated with the league. Secondly is to arrive at a capacity that will allow our teams to resume operations. We have set at the present time approximately 50% that we will require for that to occur.”
Robison had few details about what the league would need to show the health districts, saying the league was in discussions with the various health districts and hoped to have answers within the next 30 days.
However, Robison was firm about the need for teams to be able to play in front of at least half-full arenas to be financially viable. For the Everett Silvertips, who play in the 8,149-seat Angel of the Winds Arena, that would mean playing in front of crowds not much larger than 4,000. Last season Everett averaged 5,730 fans per home game, so being limited to 50% capacity will have a substantial impact on the franchise’s finances.
“It’s going to be a huge impact,” Silvertips governor Zoran Rajcic said. “If we stay at 50% it’s going to be a tight season financially.
“The return-to-play protocol does have an escalating scale, where the percentage would be smaller at the beginning of the year and grow through the season, so that by the end of the season we’d be almost back to full capacity,” Rajcic added. “If that happens, and if we’re able to make the playoffs, we can make up some of the losses from the beginning of the season. But if we play the whole season at 50% it will be very tight.”
The financial realities are also why the league is committed to playing a full season, as teams are dependent upon their 34 home dates for revenue. While Oct. 2 is the target date to start the season, Robison said that date was flexible. He said the start could be pushed back to December and the league could still complete a full season, with alterations made to the postseason to compensate.
Rajcic said that he does not believe the financial consequences threaten the franchise’s viability in Everett. The Tips have won seven U.S. Division championships and two Western Conference titles in their 17 seasons of existence.
Robison acknowledged that the league may need to make alterations to its schedule to accommodate health recommendations. That could include teams playing exclusively within their own division early in the season, or increasing the number of games against divisional opponents. Robison said there was no plan for U.S. teams to temporarily relocate to Canada to avoid any complications with the U.S.-Canada border, which currently remains closed to nonessential travel through July 21. Robison said the schedule would not be revealed until August or September at the earliest.
Everett has the twin complication of being a U.S.-based team in a league where the vast majority of the players come from Canada, as well as being located near the epicenter of what was one of the original coronavirus hotspots. However, Rajcic said he has not heard reservations from players or parents about playing in Everett.
“Dennis (Williams, Everett’s coach) and Garry (Davidson, the Tips’ general manager) have been speaking with all the players,” Rajcic said. “We haven’t had anyone express concerns to this point in time. If there was a big increase in cases later, we might encounter that. But to this time no players have discussed not being interested in coming back to play in Everett.”
The altered timeline for the season means there will be a change to when players will report for training camps. Typically players report during the last week of August in anticipation of the season beginning in mid-to-late September. However, this season players will report two weeks prior to the start of the regular season, with Robison giving a Sept. 15 date should the season start on Oct. 2. Rajcic said the Tips will cut back dramatically on the number of players who attend training camp, reducing the number from approximately 100 to about 35 who have a realistic chance of making the team in 2020-21.