By RYAN MCCRACKEN on January 12, 2021.
The Western Hockey League announced Friday that its board of governors is committed to ensuring a 2020-21 season can be played, and Willie Desjardins says almost everything is on the table.
The Medicine Hat Tigers head coach and general manager says there’s still a lot to be decided before the puck can drop on the proposed 24-game season – from an official start date, to scheduling and even bubble play – but he’s feeling more optimistic now than with any of the league’s three previously targeted dates for returning to play.
“They’ve determined that kind of whatever comes, they’re going to find a way around it,” Desjardins said in a phone call with the News. “In saying that, we still have to always go by the health officials. That’s just what we have to do and safety is always No. 1.”
Tigers centre Ryan Chyzowski agrees he feels an added touch of optimism surrounding the recent update from the league, as the tone seems to have changed with only a few months left to get a season started.
“I’m a little bit more optimistic; it’s exciting,” said Chyzowski, who is riding out the pandemic at his home in Kamloops. “It’ll be good to get back. Obviously the last three times it’s been unsure and not confident with us starting, so it’s good to see them being pretty direct with it now.”
Desjardins says scheduling is being discussed, but nothing can be locked into place until the specifics of how and where teams will play can be finalized.
“We’re just starting to talk about scheduling, but the scheduling depends,” said Desjardins. “The options are, do we play out of here or does everybody go into a bubble? Until you know that, it’s hard to decide what scheduling will look like.”
One of the largest obstacles to clear for the WHL and its owners has been the issue of hosting fans at games, however Desjardins says owners across the league have committed to games without fans in order to ensure players can return to the ice and continue development while pushing toward a professional career.
“It’s a big undertaking, it’s huge. The owners are committed to play without fans and that’s a big step,” he said. “They’ve made a huge step. They’ve said, ‘Hey, regardless, we’ll play.’ I think that’s pretty incredible for the owners to do that.”
With any luck, Desjardins says players could begin reporting to teams as early as February. If that were to work out, the season could begin before March rolls around. That is, if everything goes according to plan.
“That’s the hope, it doesn’t mean that’ll happen. Once again, it’ll be dictated by the health authorities,” said Desjardins, adding there is a possibility that games will only be played on weekends.
“We’ve got to follow their guidelines or we won’t get cleared to play. There’s been a lot of work. There are a lot of people in the Western League who have put in a lot of time and a lot of effort to try and come out with protocols: how we’ll get here, what a game will look like and all those things. There’s been a lot of work put into it and I know people are pushing hard to try to find a way to play.”