The WHL’s Alberta-based teams being given the green light to start their seasons doesn’t necessarily mean the Everett Silvertips will be close behind.
The WHL announced Thursday that its five Alberta teams were granted approval by the province’s government to return to play. However, the Central Division’s return isn’t an indication that the U.S. Division will be next.
The WHL’s 2020-21 season has been on indefinite hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. After multiple target start dates were pushed back, the league finally has something concrete in place as the Central Division is set to play a 24-game schedule beginning Feb. 26.
But according to Silvertips governor Zoran Rajcic, the start of Everett’s season, along with the rest of the U.S. Division, is not affected by Alberta’s decision to allow play to begin, as the teams are still beholden to the health authorities in Washington and Oregon.
“Now that the first egg has been cracked open, I don’t know the political landscape of whether another province will care that Alberta is moving ahead,” Rajcic said. “I don’t know what Washington State will think about a Canadian province moving ahead. Will it make it easier (to start a season)? I don’t know. Will it make it more difficult? I don’t know.”
The league’s announcement included details about how the Central Division teams will navigate the pandemic. Players will undergo quarantine periods both before and after they report to their teams. Testing will be administered on a weekly basis, with teams suspending activities for 14 days should any player or staff member test positive. Teams will only play games on the weekends, consisting of home-and-home sets against the same opponent. And there will be no fans in the stands.
While this may serve as an example of what things may look like when Everett’s season gets going, it’s not a blueprint. The Tips and the rest of the division’s teams, which will only play games between one another, will have their own protocols determined in concert with the local health districts. For example, Alberta implemented a 28-day process between the beginning of self-quarantining and the start of the season. Rajcic believes that when the U.S. Division receives approval to return — which may be closer with Snohomish County among the many counties that moved into Phase 2 of Washington’s reopening plan Thursday — will require more time between approval and the start of games.
“Even if approval happens, it’s going to take time to coordinate when we can start up,” Rajcic said. “Most of the Alberta rinks were up and running and still had ice. That’s not the case in every city where teams are.”
Therefore, not only will Everett not be playing games before Feb. 26, it’s likely to be more than 28 days between approval and the start of games. So the earliest a U.S. Division season may get started is mid-March.
Rajcic also said the U.S. Division won’t necessarily be confined to games on the weekend the way Alberta teams have been, as the division is hoping to be able to play three times a week.
There is further complication in that the U.S. Division has teams in two states, Washington and Oregon, meaning it is having to negotiate with two health authorities. Rajcic confirmed the chatter about the Portland Winterhawks potentially basing themselves in Vancouver, Washington, to make the situation less complicated.
Rajcic said the areas in which a U.S. Division season may most resemble the plan put forth by Alberta is in the testing protocols and playing games without fans.
The fact the Central Division is moving ahead before the U.S., B.C. and East divisions shows the WHL is willing to have each division play on its own timeline. It also indicates a greater likelihood the league won’t have a postseason or crown a champion this season, and it casts further doubt on whether the Memorial Cup, currently scheduled for an undetermined city in Ontario in June, will take place.
“We haven’t heard anything about (the Memorial Cup) yet, but Ontario is one of the worst provinces for cases, so I can’t see that,” Rajcic said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to declare a champion of the Western Hockey League, given you’re dealing with five jurisdictions and a border closure. I can’t say definitively it’s not going to happen, but I don’t see how you can declare a WHL champion when we can’t even get into British Columbia.
“But we’re still optimistic about playing a season,” Rajcic added. “Everything we’ve heard is that we should be able to get to play, we just haven’t been given actual approval yet.”