By RYAN MCCRACKEN on October 15, 2020.
The puck drops Jan. 8.
The Western Hockey League announced Wednesday that it will be returning to the ice for the 2020-21 season – minus the 2020 part – in the early New Year with a format designed to accommodate public safety guidelines brought on by COVID-19.
The plan is to restructure the Central Division to feature only the league’s five Albertan teams, while the Swift Current Broncos will make the jump back to the East Division – now comprised of the seven squads from Saskatchewan and Manitoba – to ensure all regular season games can be played exclusively within the boundaries of each division. This means a season rife with rivalries, as the Medicine Hat Tigers will spend the entire campaign bouncing between series against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Calgary Hitmen, Red Deer Rebels and Edmonton Oil Kings.
The B.C. and U.S. Divisions will keep their same makeup – with five teams in each division – however the U.S. will have to navigate the border between Washington and Oregon throughout the season.
Details surrounding an official schedule have not yet been released, but players will report to teams after Christmas.
As for the issue of fans, the league stated Wednesday it has not made a final decision on whether spectators will be able to attend games, as that will be subject to the approval of health authorities in each jurisdiction.
WHL commissioner Rob Robison stated in a June media conference that the league was hoping for 50 per cent capacity at each of its 22 arenas. Alberta Health guidelines currently allow for 100 spectators at indoor events. The Canalta Centre – which boasts a capacity of 7,100 – averaged fewer than 3,000 fans per Tigers game last season.
The announcement comes the same day that the Quebec Major Junior League – which has been playing in front of limited fans – suspended play across Quebec due to the rise in COVID-19 cases across that province – a list that includes 18 cases for members of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
To help prevent any such circumstances in the WHL, the league has appointed Dr. Dhiren Naidu as its chief medical adviser for the upcoming season. Naidu served as the NHL’s medical director for its playoff hub, and works as head physician for the Edmonton Oilers and Edmonton Football Team. The release says Naidu will assist the WHL “with the implementation of comprehensive health and safety protocol, in consultation with provincial and state health authorities.”
The News reached out to Tigers head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins for comment on this story but did not receive a response by press time.
Robison will address the media and discuss details of the upcoming season in a conference call this afternoon.