There are more unknowns than knowns, but the Western Hockey League has set Jan. 8 as its firm date to start its 2020-21 regular season.
In a remote media availability on Thursday, Oct. 15, WHL Commissioner Ron Robison talked about the challenges ahead and the questions to be addressed before players report to teams after Christmas.
WHL teams — including the Portland Winterhawks — will play up to 50 games only against teams in their own division. The regular-season schedule window will close May 2.
The Winterhawks will play only against Seattle, Everett, Spokane and Tri-City. According to Robison, it will be late November before schedule details are announced.
The question of who will own the Winterhawks remains unanswered. Months ago, the commissioner said he expected a new owner to be in place by mid-summer. As of mid-October, the club remains under control of the receiver managing the bankruptcy of former owner Bill Gallacher.
"The responsibility is currently with the receiver to ensure the club continues to operate. We're working very closely with the club management to make sure that there's no disruption in the Winterhawks' franchise," Robison said.
The commissioner said there have been "several offers made, groups expressing strong interest, but just haven't reached the level that we need in order to qualify as owners within the Western Hockey League, for a variety of reasons. COVID does present challenges as well, of course."
In fact, Robison said the pandemic is the main reason the sale of the Winterhawks has languished.
Robison had previously set 50% capacity for fans as the minimum for the WHL to play games, but said on Oct. 15 that attendance levels will be determined by what is allowed in each town and that "the number could be significantly lower than 50%."
The WHL is working with the governments of four Canadian provinces and of Oregon and Washington in an effort to allow some spectators. Robison noted that different phases and restrictions in each of the six governments.
One definite is that this will be a challenging season financially for a league that depends upon ticket sales for much of its revenue.
"It's very difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. From an ownership perspective, I admire their commitment to the players. … There's going to be significant financial losses for all our clubs because we know we are going to be dealing with limited capacity — far lower than we're normally accustomed to."
Robison praised the commitment of club members to honor the player agreements and hold a season despite the lack of revenue. The WHL is a developmental league for players who aspire to professional hockey. Unlike most lower-level leagues, WHL players do not pay for the opportunity to play (and that won't change, Robison said).
Winterhawks VP/GM/head coach Mike Johnston is glad there is a definite start date, even if questions remain about details such as protocols.
"We need to serve our players and put together a season for them," Johnston said.
At this point, Robison sounded confident the league's 22 clubs will survive.
"I don't believe we are at risk of losing any franchises, but it will be a difficult situation for our teams to work their way through," he said.
Robison said the league has been clear in discussions with local governments about the importance of fans to the club's business models. But he said any requests for financial help from governments will not be pursued until it is known exactly how limited attendance will be at various markets.
All games will be streamed live over the internet. Prices for that service have not been announced. Robison said in the past each team received payments based on the number of subscribers in its market. He said that payment has not been significant, but does help offset production costs.
He said the goal is to keep the pricing "family friendly," reflecting the league's philosophy on ticket prices.
Among the details yet to be finalized:
• Testing protocols — Robison noted that requirements might change or vary between jurisdictions.
"Certainly players will be tested prior to the start of the season and if they show any symptoms at any time they will be tested immediately and isolated, if necessary," Robison said.
The WHL this week announced it has hired the doctor who was the National Hockey League's medical director for its Edmonton hub during the recent Stanley Cup playoffs as the WHL Chief Medical Advisor. Dr. Dhiren Naidu of Edmonton is the team doctor for the Edmonton Oilers and for Edmonton's Canadian Football League team.
Naidu will assist the league with implementing a COVID-19 related health and safety protocol.
• No hub — Games will be played in each team's arena instead of following the NHL model of moving all of its teams to a hub city.
• Playoffs — No discussions have been held about the playoffs. Robison noted that for the usual 16-team playoffs to occur, current travel restrictions between the United States and Canada and between jurisdictions must be lifted.
The Memorial Cup, normally played in late May, has been moved back to mid-June 2021 to give the WHL, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League added time to determine champions.
• Roster freeze dates — No decision has been made about how the trade deadline and roster freeze date (normally Jan. 10) will be adjusted — but it will be. The deadline for teams to get down to the limit of three 20-year-old players, usually about three weeks into the season, also will be adjusted.
• Travel — The goal will be to minimize overnight stays. To limit cross-province travel, Swift Current will play in the East Division, leaving the Central Division all Alberta teams. The East Division will have five Saskatchewan clubs and two in Manitoba.
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