EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips will have to wait even longer for their 2020-21 season to begin.
The WHL announced Tuesday it is delaying the start of the season yet again. This is the fourth time the season’s start has been pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve had many discussions about the who, what, when and where (of getting the season started), but it all comes back to the reality of the situation,” Silvertips governor Zoran Rajcic said. “It’s where the world is today, I think is the best way to sum it up.”
The season was originally scheduled to begin on Sept. 25. In June the league reset the target start date to Oct. 2. In August that date was pushed back to Dec. 4, with the caveat that all of the league’s arenas would need to be able to open to 50% capacity. In October the start date was moved to Jan. 8, which WHL commissioner Ron Robison described as a hard start date, while eliminating the requirement of having fans in the stands and containing regular season games within divisions.
Tuesday’s announcement came with no new start date specified. The press release said the league’s Board of Governors will meet in January to consider potential start dates.
“We continue to make every effort to get our season started, bur our first priority has always been the health and safety of our players, and everyone associated with the WHL,” Robison said in a press release. “Given the public health restrictions that are currently in effect, we are not in a position to determine a new target date for our season. We will continue to consult with health authorities to determine when it is safe and responsible to get our season started.”
The landscape is not positive for getting the season started. Coronavirus cases in both the United States and Canada continue to spike. Junior hockey leagues in Canada tried to start playing, but were forced to shut back down because of outbreaks among teams. While distribution of a vaccine in the U.S. has begun, it’s not expected to achieve herd immunity until the summer.
In addition, the WHL has a tricky path to navigate because it includes teams from two U.S. states (Washington, Oregon) and four Canadian provinces (B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba). Therefore, it needs the sign-off from six different health jurisdictions to begin play.
“The league will be making some calls over the next couple weeks (to communicate with health authorities),” Rajcic said about why no new start date has been set. “What this does is give us a little more time to get more answers. At the forefront of all this is player safety.
“If you look at this from a broader perspective in what’s best for the players, I don’t think we can (begin a season) effectively and safely right now,” Rajcic added. “If you look at other sports that have tried to get going, they’re not succeeding. The exposure and risk to the players, staff and people around us, just to say we were able to execute something? It comes back to the safety of our players first, but also the billets, our staff, and if we can have fans then the safety of the fans. Right now there’s no way to execute all those things in a manner that’s not only good for the sport, but good for humanity.”
Pushing back the start date threatens to shrink the season even further. The WHL normally has a 68-game regular season. The plan with the Jan. 8 start date was to aim for 50 games with a condensed postseason. The Memorial Cup, which is currently scheduled to begin June 17 in either Oshawa or Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, sets a limit as to when the WHL would need to crown a champion. Therefore, the number of games will continue to diminish.
However, if the Memorial Cup were cancelled, Rajcic said the WHL could adjust its schedule to extend into the summer.
“If our No. 1 priority is the development of the players on our rosters, we can do that,” Rajcic said. “If our priority is crowning a champion and the Memorial Cup, then it’s a tougher timeline. But as to getting more games for development, there’s still some optimism for that. If we’re looking at later months and just playing some kind of hockey, there’s potential for that. But everything will be dictated by where we are at with the virus.”
WHL teams already took a financial hit when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the end of the 2019-20 regular season and the playoffs. The continued pushing back of the start of the 2020-21 season is forcing further belt tightening. However, Rajcic said Everett’s financial situation remains manageable.
“We’ve got an unbelievably strong owner,” Rajcic said. “We’ve furloughed staff, we’ve minimized expenses as much as we can. At the end of the day it’s not about being in business for 20-21, it’s about being in business 20, 30 years down the road. Ownership is backing us and making sure everything is covered.”
This story has been modified to correct coronavirus vaccine information.