The Western Hockey League will have games this year in Alberta.
The league made the announcement Thursday, that it was granted approval by the Government of Alberta and Alberta Health to return to play – with five Alberta teams opening a 24-game season on Feb. 26.
“The WHL appreciates the support we have received from Alberta Health as we work towards a safe return to play in the province,” said WHL Commissioner Ron Robison.
“With our extensive protocols and the necessary approvals now in place, we are looking forward to play getting underway in Alberta and allowing our players to continue their development at the highest level in the Canadian system.”
The WHL originally was slated to start the season in December, but that was pushed to Jan. 8 in October and then pushed further after a league meeting early in 2021.
There will be no fans allowed in the arenas for the shortened season. The full 24-game schedule is expected to be released early next week, but there will be a maximum of one opponent per week, with a five-day break prior to playing a new opponent.
Games will only be played on weekends and consist of home-and-home games mini-series.
Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter, said Thursday’s announcement is a light at the end of the tunnel and a positive in a year that’s been tough on everyone.
“It’s been a process and it’s hard on everybody like it is for everybody in our world right now,” said Sutter, adding it will have been almost a year since the last time the Rebels played a WHL game.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel, it’s exciting to have hockey going. With that said there’s a lot of things as a division with protocols and everything involved, there’s still a lot of work to be put into it.”
Players and staff will begin self-quarantining on Jan. 30 and will report to their WHL cities on Feb. 6, where they will be required to undergo COVID-19 testing upon and another quarantine period.
The league will use private PCR testing strategy and have enhanced screening. If a WHL team has one or more players or staff test positive for COVID-19 at any point in the season, the team will be required to suspend activities for a minimum of 14 days.
Pre-season on-ice training for the teams will open on Feb. 12 at the earliest.
Five teams, including the Rebels, Edmonton Oil Kings, Lethbridge Hurricanes, Medicine Hat Tigers, and Calgary Hitmen will make up the Central Division this season.
The league has agreed all Central Division games during the 2020-21 regular season will be played exclusively within the provincial boundaries of Alberta.
Masks will also needed to be worn by players at all times with the exception of when participating on ice for games and practices and coaches will need to wear masks in practice and behind the bench in games.
The other health jurisdictions in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Oregon and Washington have yet to make a decision on a return to play plan.