The Red Deer Rebels will return to the ice on Jan. 8, the league announced this week. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

The Red Deer Rebels will return to the ice on Jan. 8, the league announced this week. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

WHL anticipating 50-game season, to start January 8

Teams will play in territorial cohorts for the entire 2020-21 campaign

The Western Hockey League is hoping to squeeze out a 50-game season as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on.

In a zoom conference Thursday, WHL Commissioner Ron Robison addressed a number of topics and noted the proposed Jan. 8 start date is not tentative, but a firm beginning of the 2020-21 campaign.

They are hoping to have the regular season wrapped up by May 2 and have not decided on a playoff format. Robison said more details on the schedule will likely come in Mid-November.

“We are making very good progress and our health and safety protocols have been well received. As everyone is well aware, we’re at different stages in different provinces and states within our region. We’re going to need some additional time to work out those details before we can release information on our actual schedule for the season,” he explained.

“We’re excited to have all our players returning to our locations after Christmas to begin training and final preparations for the season, including exhibition games leading into our opening game.”

The burning question on many fans’ minds that has yet to be answered is whether supporters will be in attendance when the puck drops in January.

Originally, the league said they hoped to play with at least 50 per cent capacity in arenas this season. Robison acknowledged that they are still working towards having fans, but it could be significantly less than half capacity.

“(50 per cent capacity) is our objective but we recognize that will be determined by the health authorities and through our discussions with them,” he 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 per cent, given the health restrictions that apply in various provinces and states.”

With that, the commissioner also recognized the financial burden the league faces in the wake of light gate revenues. He said while most teams would survive the year, the strain would be felt across the league.

“It’s a very difficult circumstance that we find ourselves in from an ownership perspective, I admire their commitment to the players to get the season started and to work our way through this,” he said.

“There are going to be significant financial losses by all our clubs. We know we’re going to be dealing with limited capacity– far lower than we are accustomed to and that will cause some challenges. I don’t believe we are at risk of losing any franchises.”

In a release Wednesday, the league said the season will be played in territorial cohorts, with teams in Alberta and B.C. playing within the province and the five U.S. Division teams also forming a cohort. With seven teams in Saskatchewan in and Manitoba, the league is hoping to form a cohort with that group but still needs approval.

“We still need to obtain approval for the inter-provincial travel between Manitoba and Saskatchewan. We’re at different stages with each of the health authorities in those provinces, but expect a decision on that soon, so that we can move forward with scheduling games,” Robison said.

At the current time, Alberta also has a 50-person cohort limit and a 14-day waiting period between switching cohorts.

“There’s some movement to give us some flexibility in that area and I believe there will be an announcement soon in that regard,” he said.

The WHL commissioner also addressed what has happened in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, since they started play on Oct. 2. Wednesday, that league was forced to suspend play after the COVID-19 outbreak has continued to soar in Quebec. Earlier this month, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada announced they had 18 positive tests, while the Sherbrooke Phoenix said they had eight.

“We’re in constant contact with the Candian Hockey League and certainly directly looking at the Quebec Major Junior League as to how they’re managing through different circumstances. We have compared protocols in preparation for the season,” he said.

“We are learning from how they are addressing different situations, especially how they work through not only positive tests with certain teams, but also the various areas of heightened concerns, red zones and how they’ve responded to that.”