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Western Hockey League commissioner discusses club's ownership, WHL return-to-plan plan

PMG FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison says Winterhawks should have a new owner before August.The Western Hockey League is optimistic that the Portland Winterhawks will have a new owner by the end of July.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison said there has been a lot of interest in acquiring the club.

"We're hopeful that we will be in a position later this month and into July to select a candidate to become the new owner of the Portland Winterhawks," Robison said. "It's important to have that resolved as quickly as possible. Our target is to have that resolved by sometime in July."

The Winterhawks franchise is in receivership as part of a bankruptcy filing by former owner Bill Gallacher.

Portland Winterhawks Inc. was among the Gallacher companies put into receivership on May 7 as part of chapter 15 bankruptcy filings in Portland and Toronto. The Winterhawks are not bankrupt. The club was part of the collateral put up when Gallacher took out a $20 million (Canadian) loan from Toronto-based Bridging Finance. Chapter 15 is a United States bankruptcy tool used when the debtor has business in more than one country.

"The receiver is now looking through and assessing the various inquiries that have been made. I can tell you that there has been very strong interest," Robison said. "The receivership is not a reflection of the state of the franchise. The franchise is in very, very good position. It's one of our premier franchises in the Western Hockey League."

Robison addressed the Winterhawks' ownership during a video press conference Thursday. The focus of the conference was the WHL's plan for the 2020-21 season.

Robison emphasized that the priority for all 22 clubs is to play a full 68-game regular season. The league this week announced October 2 as its target for starting the season, but Robison said that will depend upon Oregon, Washington and the four Canadian provinces within the WHL boundary allowing spectators to attend games.

"We feel like we need to have spectators in order to make it work. Obviously, we're a ticket-driven league from a revenue perspective," Robison said, noting that the WHL doesn't have the media rights or national sponsorship revenue that major pro sports leagues do.

The priority is fulfilling season-ticket and club season sponsorship agreements, so playing all 68 games is the goal even if the start of the season is delayed until November or December. Robison said a 68-game schedule could be played if the season starts as late as early December.

If necessary, Robison said, the league will shorten its playoffs, and possibly work with the Canadian Hockey League to push back the Memorial Cup tournament, which is scheduled for May 2021 in a Ontario Hockey League market to be determined.

The WHL has set a minimum 50% of venue capacity as its goal for restarting, though Robison said the league will follow state and provincial guidelines when determining how many fans can attend games. He added that the league has not yet worked on a detailed plan for how to keep fans socially distanced and safe during COVID-19.

"We need that spectator capacity matter to be resolved before we can commence play. But we're confident we're going to get there," Robison said. "I think if you look at the reopening plans, it's going to take time to get there. But we think there will be a solution at some point."

The WHL is a developmental league for players ages 15-20. It's top players move to the National Hockey League and other professional leagues.

Training camps will open about two weeks before the start of the 2020-21 regular season, according to Robison.

Robison said the league's Board of Governors has developed a detailed return-to-play plan that it will share with governing bodies as it works with states and provinces to allow the clubs to restart operations.

Robison said the return-to-play plan does not include testing of WHL players, but does include a plan for monitoring players' health each day.

Among the challenges to getting the WHL restarted is having the United States-Canada boarder reopened. Robison said the WHL has not yet discussed the option of moving the five U.S. Division teams' operations to Canada until the boarder reopens.

"Anything is possible," regarding how the schedule comes together, Robison said.

To start with, the league is building a normal schedule. But the commissioner said it's possible that adjustments will be made. For example, if necessary, teams could play more game against division opponents to limit travel. Robison said he does not expect that situation to be clarified until at least August or September.

Several jurisdictions, including Oregon, have indicated that gatherings for sports and entertainment events will be severely limited for the foreseeable future. Robison said the WHL intends to have discussions with state and provincial authorities about its plan to reopen with spectators.

Robison said there have not been any discussions about cancelling the 2020-21 season, or of a deadline date at which such a decision would become necessary.

"We are committed to having a season, and to playing this year, without question," he said. "Having said that, the timing at which we arrive at these decisions is outside of our control."

Robison said the WHL and CHL rosters rules will not change as a result of COVID-19 and that teams will continue to be limited to three 20-year-old players and two players from outside of North America.

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