The WHL plans to get back on the ice on Dec. 4. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

The WHL plans to get back on the ice on Dec. 4. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

WHL aims for Dec. 4 start date

League originally slated Oct. 2 as its return to play date

The Western Hockey League announced an ambitious plan for the 2020-21 season this week.

Thursday, the league said they are still aiming to play a 68-game season, but with a start date of December 4. Originally, its return to play plan included an Oct. 2 start date, with 68 games as the target.

WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said in a release that health authorities have advised them more time is needed in order to execute the return to play plan.

“Regardless of our start date, the WHL is committed to playing a full Regular Season and Playoffs in 2020-21,” said WHL Commissioner Ron Robison in a press release.

“In our discussions with the government and health authorities, it has become apparent that additional time is required to ensure we can return to play in a safe and responsible manner. Our WHL health and safety protocols have been well received by the health authorities but we have several key issues that we will need to reach a resolution on in the coming months.”

Red Deer Rebels owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter echoed those comments, saying the start date is fluid and is entirely based on the go-ahead from health officials.

He also said that most hockey leagues across North America are waiting until December to start, including the ECHL, American Hockey League, British Columbia Junior A Hockey League and others.

The league said in a press conference for its original return to play plan earlier this summer, that they hoped to have 50 per cent capacity in arenas when play resumed. Sutter noted, at this point, they are still hoping for fans in the stands.

“We gotta have people in the building, no question. We have to have some kind of attendance and that’s our goal right now,” he said.

“And yet, we’ll just have to see where it goes because it continues to move. It’s a moving target that’s changing all the time.”

The Ontario Hockey League released its adjusted return to play plan Tuesday and they are aiming to play 64 games. Meanwhile, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will vote on a 60-game season in the coming days.

Regardless of the regular season length, the Canadian Hockey League plans to start the Memorial Cup tournament on June 17.

Two seasons ago, the first time the WHL played a 68 game season, the opening game of the regular season was played on September 21 and ended on March 17. The condensed schedule this year will be a hurdle for the WHL when they do return to action.

“Scheduling is not going to be easy but we still have an opportunity to play the regular season through until May, so we can still get a 68-game schedule in,” he said.

“I think whenever the season starts, that’s when it will start and we’ll make adjustments at the time and the league will do a good job with that.”

Sutter also explained the league has talked about testing players and ultimately, whenever they start playing, they need to make sure it’s a safe environment for players, fans and coaches.

“There’s things we have in place and we’ve presented (to health authorities) and it’s more of a situation of when it’s possible we can start. Right now, they’ve told us the October date is not possible,” he said.

“We’re just following the lead on what we’re being told and the adjustments that we need to make.”