By RYAN MCCRACKEN on October 16, 2020.
Ron Robison spoke in no uncertain terms: there’s nothing tentative about Jan. 8.
The Western Hockey League Commissioner discussed available details surrounding the upcoming season in a conference call with members of the media Wednesday and said that unlike previously suggested start dates, Jan. 8 is circled on the calendar in permanent ink.
“That is a firm start date – not a tentative date,” said Robison, adding the concluding date for the regular season is May 2, allowing for a maximum 50 games. “The number of games will be determined as we work our way through the next number of weeks, but we can play up to a maximum of 50.”
The league has also taken a firm stance on its divisional approach to the schedule. For Medicine Hat, this means an entire season against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Calgary Hitmen, Red Deer Rebels and Edmonton Oil Kings, or as Tigers head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins describes it – a constant playoff atmosphere.
“It’s basically going to be playoffs the whole way because after you play each team once the rivalries are going to be really intense,” said Desjardins. “There’s not one easy game in that grouping. All those franchises are led by great people, they all have good history and they’re going to be really tough games. For that, it’s going to make for great hockey.”
Desjardins says the Tigers will return to Medicine Hat for the upcoming season on Dec. 27.
By pushing the start date past the holiday break, Robison says the league managed to avoid any potential issues in having players leave their teams during the season.
“The health authorities were concerned about movement of players before Christmas and returning home over the Christmas break and how that might lead to more exposures and so forth,” said Robison. “That was one of the considerations, but I think we looked at it and it just made sense to bring the players in and keep with the teams for the entire season and not have them moving back.”
What the schedule will look like exactly is still a mystery, as Robison says a number of details still need to be hammered out, from how to navigate cohort restrictions to cutting down on overnight hotel stays. Each of the four jurisdictions, or divisions – Central (Alberta), East (Saskatchewan/Manitoba), U.S. (Oregon and Washington) and B.C. – are in different stages of their relaunch strategies, which will make scheduling a handful.
In Alberta, sport cohorts are restricted to 50 people, with a mandatory 14-day non-competition period to be completed when changing cohorts. This has prompted some leagues like the Canadian Sport School Hockey League and Heritage Junior Hockey League to take on a series-based schedule, but Robison says that framework doesn’t quite work for the WHL.
“We’ve expressed our concerns to the health authorities on those restrictions. It makes it difficult for us to schedule on that basis, and I think there’s some movement, to give us some more flexibility if you will, in that area. I believe there will be an announcement soon, in that regard, in Alberta,” said Robison.
“The scope of our teams, the number of people who travel with the teams, to the number of personnel, officials, minor officials, etc. that have to conduct games – our situation is a little unique and the scope of our league is much different than certainly minor hockey or other levels of the game.”
Other factors making it difficult to lock in a schedule are interprovincial travel between Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the East Division and rescheduling days on the league calendar such as the overage cutdown draft and the trade deadline – typically Jan. 10.
“Not only are we waiting for some clarification, in some cases, from the health authorities, we need to work through some unique changes to our regulations,” he said. “That will be a discussion we’re going to be having with the general managers in the coming weeks in order to finalize, but there will be an adjustment to the dates.”
As for trades, Robison says the league has not yet discussed the potential of restricting transactions to specific divisions.
Another current unknown is how many, if any, fans will be permitted to attend games in arenas across the league, such as the Canalta Centre. Robison previously stated the league hoped to reach 50 per cent fan capacity, though he says that may not be possible given current restrictions.
“Those discussions are ongoing and we’re looking forward to getting some clarification on that soon, but the number may be significantly lower than 50 per cent just given the health restrictions that apply,” he said. “We’re optimistic based on our discussions with the health authorities in all locations, that we’ll get their full co-operation. Whether we’ll have spectators, at the end of the day I’m not sure, but certainly they understand we’re a spectator-dependent league and that revenue stream is extremely important to our teams.”
Regardless, the season is sure to come with a financial hit to teams across the league. But Robison says the league’s ownership group is stepping up to ensure a season can take place.
“From an ownership perspective I admire their commitment to the players to get the season started and to work our way through this, but there are going to be significant financial losses for all our clubs, without question,” said Robison. “We know we’re going to be dealing with limited capacity, far lower than what we are normally accustomed to and that will cause some challenges. I don’t believe we’re at risk of losing any franchises, but it will be a difficult situation for our teams to work their way through.”
Desjardins says he appreciates the support from owners Darrell and Brent Maser in helping ensure the team’s players can return to training for a future on the ice.
“It isn’t a good time for hockey and to own a team right now, but you’ve got to be appreciative of what they’ve done and their willingness to stay with it and keep supporting the team,” he said.
One way the league will aim to address the dip in revenue while helping fans who can’t make it out to games is through its live streaming service. Robison says teams earn the revenue they generate through subscription programs, though it doesn’t compare to ticket sales.
“It’s not significant but it certainly helps to offset the cost of production and allows us to provide a service that’s very important, especially to the families and our fans who follow the games regularly,” he said. “It will be even that much more important this season.”
Robison added the league has not yet shifted discussion to any potential changes to playoffs, but he said the state of the border and the Memorial Cup – currently slated for June – will play significant factors into whether a WHL champion can be crowned.
“In the event that we’re not successful with the border opening and there is a cancellation of the Memorial Cup – which we hope doesn’t happen – we would have to come up with an alternate format for playoffs which may include declaring four champions within our divisions,” he said. “But that’s not something we’ve contemplated at this stage. We’re hopeful that by May we can play four rounds of playoffs like we normally do then head to Ontario for the Memorial Cup in June.”
Robison says that as it stands, imports and Americans returning to Canadian teams will be required to self-isolate upon returning to their clubs for the season, however that could change in the coming weeks.
“We are working with the Public Health Agency of Canada on how we will manage their entry into Canada and we’re hopeful that we’ll have some news on that very soon,” said Robison.
Desjardins says the news of a Jan. 8 start date doesn’t change his timetable in tracking down a replacement for outgoing assistant coach Ryan Smith – who recently took on an associate position with the Spokane Chiefs
“There’s no rush on that one. Our players aren’t in until (Dec. 27) so we don’t need anybody in place until that time,” he said. “But I think the big thing is just the excitement around (the season). It’ll be great. I know fans want to get out and watch and I think all our guys want to play. They want to get playing again. As long as it’s safe medically, we’re excited to give it a chance to go.”