Will they or won’t they, that is the question.
The Western Hockey League made another commitment late last week, to potentially play a 24-game game season.
The league previously “fully intended” to play a full 68-game season, followed by a plan to start the year on Jan. 8, before the latest announcement– a commitment to play a 24-game season at some point, assuming provincial health authority approval.
“The Western Hockey League is committed to providing a season for WHL players,” said WHL Commissioner Ron Robison in a press release Friday.
“This commitment ensures WHL players will receive the opportunity to compete at the highest level in the system and continue to pursue their hockey goals in the world’s finest development league for junior hockey players.”
The goal, at least at this point is to gain approval from the proper health authorities “soon” and hit the ice sometime in late February for a 24-game season.
In the league release, they said all schedule formats and models are being considered, which could include playing in a bubble in order to play hockey in 2021.
Originally, the WHL had planned to keep teams playing with divisional boundaries, to reduce travel and COVID-19 exposure across borders.
It’s nowhere near ideal but needs to happen according to Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter.
“Now we’re getting some light at the end of the tunnel, out west, here, that there’s an opportunity that we’re going to play a 24-game schedule, so that’s the decision that was made,” Sutter said.
“This isn’t happening without protocols in place that our health authorities and provincial governments haven’t signed off on. No matter how many games we play, there are going to be real strict protocols in place.
“That was all worked on with the committee that we’ve had in place with the league, working with the health authorities and the doctor we’ve hired to help us.”
At one point earlier this year, the league was bullish on having at least some fans in seats. They said it was a necessity if they hoped to have a season. Sutter said health authorities were simply never on board with that plan.
“We’ve known all along, that when we had a chance to start up that we weren’t going to be able to have fans. We’ve known that since almost the beginning. Our health ministers and health authorities have told us pretty well from the get-go,” Sutter said.
“Does it have a huge economical impact? Absolutely. At the end of the day, you still have to do what’s right for our game. You have to do what’s right for our players and what’s right for our communities and organizations. And our league. So all those things fall into place.”
The Ontario Hockey League had plans to start on Feb. 4, but that has since been delayed because of lockdown measures in the province.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is expected to resume play on Jan. 22, with protective environments in four different cities.