The Red Deer Rebels might be back on the ice as soon as Oct. 2, depending on the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

WHL targeting Oct. 2 return

League intends to play 68-game season

“It’s a long way off.”

That was the overwhelming sentiment from Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter.

He’s right– October 2 is still 105 days away, but the Western Hockey League provided some reason for optimism Wednesday about the potential for a season.

After the conclusion of its Board of Governors meeting, the league announced they are targeting Oct. 2 as the start date of the 2020-21 WHL season. The release explained that start date is contingent on necessary approvals from health authorities in each of the six jurisdictions (four Provinces and two States) and loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in certain areas.

They have set up a task force in each of those jurisdictions to work with health authorities and governments in order to work through the return to play protocol.

The league was forced to end the 2019-20 regular season early, had to cancel its playoffs and the Memorial Cup as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the release Wednesday, the WHL also stated that they are a spectator-driven league and the “welcoming back of WHL fans is vital to a successful return to hockey for all 22 WHL member Clubs”. In addition, they intend to play a full 68-game season, regardless of when it starts. Over the past several years, the league has started the season in the third week of September.

Sutter said Wednesday that while the news was positive, there’s a lot that needs to be worked out between now and then before the puck can drop.

“At the end of the day, we’re looking at October, but at the same time, those decisions are going to be made as things go along,” said Sutter, who was also re-elected to the Executive Committee of the WHL Board of Governors.

“We don’t know, but I guess we still would like to play a 68-game season, we’ll just have to see when it gets started.”

With the U.S.-Canada border still closed to travel and gatherings of more than 100 people still not permitted in most indoor settings, it remains to be seen what WHL hockey will look like if it comes back in 2020.

“It’s a long process. Who knows what things will look like in the fall. You don’t know, no one does. Obviously, the safety, health of the fans and the players and all the staff and everyone working inside buildings, is first and foremost,” Sutter said.

Part of what the league will look like next year was still outlined in the announcement, as the Canadian Hockey League reach a new streaming deal to show its games online.

“WHL fans can look forward to all three CHL leagues housed under one streaming service, with a new digital platform developed by an entirely new partner available on new devices,” the release reads, adding that details about the provider and packing will come out down the line.

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