The Western Hockey League has long acknowledged how important fans are to its product.
Thursday, 24 hours after the league released an outline of its return to play protocols, commissioner Ron Robison held a zoom call with reporters to provide further details on the plan, one of which was addressing fans.
Much of what the league provided reiterated what they said Wednesday, including the desire to start the 2020-21 season on Oct. 2, as well as the intention to play a 68-game season.
In his address Thursday, Robison stressed the need to have fans in the building if the league is to play and for buildings to be at least at 50 per cent capacity when they do start.
“As a spectator driven league, we need spectators in order to make it work. That is a key criteria. There is essentially two key criteria in our return to play protocol, number one is to demonstrate to the health authorities in each of our jurisdictions that we can return in a safe and responsible manner,” Robison said on the call.
“Secondly, to arrive at a capacity that will allow our teams to resume operations. We have set approximately 50 per cent as a minimum capacity that we require in order for that to happen.”
In Red Deer, the Centrium has a nearly 7,000 seat capacity for hockey. Last year, the Rebels averaged close to 4,000 fans in according to hockey website HockeyDB.
Robison said if they are able to start the year on Oct. 2, training camps would be two weeks and likely start on Sept. 15. In a case where the season was to be delayed, even as late as December, the commissioner said they would still be committed to a 68-game season.
The commissioner did express that they are considering a scenario where teams play only within their division for the first portion of the season, to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on play.
He also explained that the opening of the U.S.- Canada border was another key piece of the league returning to regular play in October. As of now, they are hoping to have a better picture by august or September about whether they will need to make different arrangements for play with the five American-based teams.
Robison noted Thursday they expect to have results from the task forces that have been set up in each of the six jurisdictions (four provinces and two states) in the next 30 days, which will help them proceed with a return to play plan. Part of that included COVID-19 screening for players and fans but no testing is necessary unless it is required by the local health authorities.
Even with the proposed start date, Robison noted the start date is extremely fluid and might need to be adjusted for a number of reasons.
“I think everyone understands how flexible we need to be in these circumstances and if we have a delayed start, that we’re going to rely on the buildings to open up and give us the necessary flexibility we’re going to need to make adjustments overall to what our schedule looks like,” he said.
“That is something we’re going to be addressing once we find out how our discussion is going with government and what the prospects of the start time will be.”