With the Canada-US border still closed, the pandemic raging across wester Canada and the Pacific northwest, and lockdown mandates in effect to or past the start date proposed, the WHL announced today that “it will delay the start of the 2020-21 WHL Regular Season, and following further consultation with regional health authorities” regarding dates for a safe return-to-play scenario in order to have a 2020-21 WHL season. I can already hear your gasps and sighs on this one as it was really a no-brainer that proposed January 8 start date was not going to happen with Manitoba and Alberta both in lockdown situations until further notice, preventing any sort of non-bubbled hockey from being played. If those mandates aren’t lifted in January, the chances of a season being cancelled is are very much in play.
“We continue to make every effort to get our season started, but our first priority has always been the health and safety of our players, and everyone associated with the WHL,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison stated today. “Given the public health restrictions that are currently in effect, we are not in a position to determine a new target date for our season. We will continue to consult with health authorities to determine when it is safe and responsible to get our season started.”
I almost want to applaud Robison for putting the health and safety of players first in this case, but let’s not kid ourselves in that the WHL season would be full-steam ahead if it weren’t for the Code Red mandates in two of the league’s four provinces. Some of the WHL clubs don’t post massive profits, so this actually might be good news in disguise since the testing processes and the protocols for each team would need to examined and re-examined based upon test results.
What I will applaud is Robison’s honesty in stating that the WHL will follow the government restrictions in those provinces where there are Code Red restrictions. He could have pulled a QMJHL move and had teams play within their provinces and, for US-based teams, amongst themselves for the January period until both Manitoba and Alberta eased restrictions, but Robison is making the right move here in not pushing forth with a season that, ultimately, may turn out to be meaningless.
The East Division that was proposed for the January 8 start date would have been missing the two Manitoba-based teams in the Brandon Wheat Kings and Winnipeg Ice had they actually started on that day. The five Saskatchewan-based teams in the Prince Albert Raiders, Regina Pats, Swift Current Broncos, Moose Jaw Warriors, and Saskatoon Blades got some seemingly good news just four days ago when both Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and House Leader Jeremy Harrison stated they had no intention of shutting the province down, possibly opening up possibilities of the WHL season getting started from a Saskatchewan perspective. The news from the WHL today, however, kills that idea.
British Columbia’s five WHL teams were also hoping that the January 8 date would stand pat as BC is managing better than its neighbouring province to the east in Alberta, but the Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets, Prince George Cougars, Vancouver Giants, and Victoria Royals won’t be dropping the puck on that date either. The catch is that this division would have looked more like rookie camps for the five clubs as BC does have an ongoing mandate that all indoor and outdoor sports are suspended for people aged 19 or older. Obviously, that’s not an ideal situation for those five WHL teams, so it might actually be a benefit to the BC-based WHL teams to wait longer.
The five American teams spread out over Washington State and Oregon are dealing with their own lockdowns in those states. The Everett Silvertips, the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Spokane Chiefs, and the Tri-City Americans saw Washington Governor Jay Inslee ban indoor gatherings until January 4 one week ago, and all sporting activities have been “limited to outdoor-only for intra-team practices and athletes must wear masks.”
The lone Oregon-based team in the Portland Winterhawks has been following an Oregon Health Authority order published on December 3, 2020 that mandates, “Full-contact sports are prohibited at this time” with the understanding that “full-contact sports” is defined to include hockey as per the health order. In other words, Oregon has no intention of letting the Winterhawks play at this time with respect to the state of the pandemic currently in the state of Oregon.
What does that all mean? Well, for starters, it means the WHL made the right decision when, in theory, five full teams could play in Saskatchewan and five partial teams could play in BC while twelve WHL teams sat on the sidelines. It also means that Robison, despite his hand being forced by governments, is making the right decision when it comes to the health and safety of the WHL players and staff. There is nothing wrong with waiting this one out – I cannot be more clear about this – and I should remind everyone reading this that sports are a reward for a functioning society.
I’m not here to pat the WHL on its back for making what, to me, seems like a very elementary decision when it comes to the athletes and people it relies upon to be successful. The fact that they were, more or less, forced into this decision by being stretched across four provinces and two states means that they can’t make the same mistakes that QMJHL did when it came to forcing the start of a season. Make no mistake that I’m skeptical that this decision would have been made if the WHL was based mainly in Saskatchewan.
We’ll wait for further updates on when the WHL hopes to get started, but it good to see that a number of hockey players, coaches, and staff won’t have to risk their health and safety in order to rush back to work to play a season of WHL hockey when the calendar flips to 2021.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!