With a unique WHL season comes unique challenges and the Red Deer Rebels are certainly getting creative in their approach to it.
The league will start a 24-game inter-provincial season on Feb. 26, with games only running on weekends between the five teams in Alberta.
Players were told to self-quarantine starting on Jan. 30 – arriving in their respective cities before Feb. 6.
In Red Deer, the Rebels stayed in a local hotel during their quarantine period, much like Team Canada during its selection camp ahead of the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships.
The team said this week that the players will live in the Westerner Park Centrium suites, instead of using billets for the players this season.
“We agreed it would be the safest thing to do, the right thing to do, to make it work the best we could, to make sure we were following all the protocols and guidelines to be able to make it work. A lot of time and effort by everyone involved,” said Rebels owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter.
Since no fans will be allowed to attend games this season, the team got approval from the City of Red Deer and Westerner Park to allow the players to live in the rink. It was thanks to all those parties that they are able to have the players settling into arena living.
The plan also involved getting the suite owners’ support, as well as the players and their parents.
Team officials have set up basketball nets, spikeball and ping pong tables on the concourse to keep the players entertained. The suites will also be equipped with wifi.
“The kids are very excited about being here, they all showed up and are all settled into their own suites. The billets brought beds over and we borrowed some beds from other people. It’s actually really awesome,” said Sutter, who extended his thanks to all those who helped out in the process.
“It was a lot of work but the kids are really excited and excited about getting back to playing some hockey and getting going here.”
The players underwent COVID-19 testing when they arrived in Red Deer and are expecting results Thursday – with the team hitting the ice as early as the weekend.
When they do eventually suit up for practice, it will be nearly 340 days after their last game, a win on March 11, 2020, against the Swift Current Broncos.
“It’s been almost a year. That was the whole thing for myself, from an ownership point of view, we’ve gotta do everything we can to get back to playing for our players,” Sutter said.
“These kids are trying to make their careers out of this. This is major junior hockey, the next level is professional hockey. It’s the highest level of amateur hockey… and to miss a year of hockey as it is, it sets everybody back some.”
The WHL schedule has not been released and is expected in the next few days. The schedule won’t be fully laid out when it is released and will only include a few home-and-home games in March.
“It can change as we go along,” Sutter said.
The Calgary Hitmen had previously announced they will have a bye on the opening weekend – meaning the Rebels, along with the Edmonton Oil Kings, Medicine Hat Tigers and Lethbridge Hurricanes will open play between Feb. 26-28.
Red Deer will be without the services of their top defenceman, as Finnish import blueliner Christoffer Sedoff will not be joining the club because of COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions. Thomas Chlubna, whom the team picked in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, will also not be joining the team for the shortened season.
The roster for the 2020-21 Rebels lists 14 forwards, eight defencemen and three goalies, most of whom are returning from last season.
It also includes 16-year-olds Hunter Mayo, Jace Weir, Carter Anderson and Jhett Larson and rookie goalie Chase Coward.
Forward Josh Medernach and defenceman Trey Patterson, both played sparingly last season and are also on the roster.
Red Deer’s three 20-year-old players are Josh Tarzwell, Chris Douglas and Ethan Anders.