On June 17th the Western Hockey League released a statement outlining their return to play initiative for the 2020/2021 season. The release outlined October 2nd as the targeted start for next season, which is contingent on approvals from government and health officials. The challenge is the WHL is spread across six different health authorities in B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Washington State and Oregon.
The release added, “The WHL has appointed special task forces in each of the six jurisdictions to work directly with government and health authorities to ensure the health and safety of WHL players, staff, officials and fans are a top priority in the return-to-play protocol.
“The outcome of these discussions with government authorities will ultimately determine the start date for the 2020-2021 WHL regular season.”
The WHL, and the entire Canadian Hockey League, will be watching how things play out for the NHL and their Return to Play. If it works well, it gives them hope a season can be played.
However, two WHL sources confirmed that playing without fans in the stands will be financially difficult for many organizations.
It is unlikely government officials will allow full capacity in arenas by October, but the sources confirmed if they are allowed 50% capacity then the league could play games. It would be a major financial challenge to play with no fans.
The WHL is committed to playing a full 68-game season, even if the start of the season is pushed back to November.
But the sources told me the WHL is currently devising a plan for the worst case-scenario: no hockey in 2020.
WHAT WILL PLAYERS DO?
Many players and their families are wondering what will happen if there is no season.
One plan the sources confirmed, which would limit costs and travel, is the league would provide ice time in cities for the players.
For instance, Edmonton area players, regardless of which WHL team they played on, would practice at a facility in Edmonton. The practices would be run by WHL coaches.
Even if the season is delayed another month or two the league is looking at the above scenario as an option.
Many minor hockey associations have sent out guidelines for the coming season and many have suggested it might begin with only practices and no games, so it isn’t surprising that the WHL is looking at a similar plan.
Ideally, the WHL wants to be cleared to play games and start the season in October, but without fans in the stands playing games seems unlikely.
In April, the Canadian Football League asked the Canadian federal government for up to $150 million in financial assistance due to the pandemic. But last week that number dropped to $42 million as the league is now focused on a six-game season. If the government grants the CFL money, the CHL will likely ask for financial support as well.
But the costs for CHL teams are much lower than CFL teams, as they don’t pay the players, other than a small stipend, and I wonder if the league’s proposal would be akin to having 25% fan capacity. On average, whatever a team would make with 25% fans in the stands, that is the number they ask for from the government for instance.
I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect government funding, and without it there would be major challenges for community-owned WHL teams to function. It is difficult for any business to run if the majority of their revenue suddenly stops.
Even if the season is played, we will likely see a different schedule.
Will the USA teams only play their division due to border restrictions?
Will the league want limited travel to cut costs and have teams play within their division, or maybe the conference?
These questions are being discussed right now.
The two sources mentioned discussions within the WHL have been minimal the past few weeks, as the league watches how the NHL’s Return to Play progresses.
If it works, that is a positive that at least hockey can be played, however, I’m told the WHL doesn’t have the funds to test daily like the NHL. But could we see four bubble cities for each division? Neither source could confirm if that was a realistic option at this point.
The WHL is looking at all options, but right now it seems unlikely the league will play until fans, or at least 25-50% of them, are allowed in the stands.
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