Return to play priorities include fans in stands and all teams able to play: WHL commissioner

WHL commissioner Ron Robison, seen here after the 2019 AGM in Kelowna. Global News

A day after wrapping up the Western Hockey League‘s annual general meeting, an event that wound up being a conference call gathering this year because of coronavirus concerns, Commissioner Ron Robison fielded questions from the media via a video conference call for about 40 minutes on Thursday to discuss the league’s return to play initiative.

And while any plans for the 2020-21 season will remain “fluid” in nature because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, that will not apply to whether there will be fans in the stands.

“Obviously as a spectator-driven league, we need spectators in order to make it work,” said Robison, adding there are two “must-have” criteria to a return-to-play protocol.

“Number one is to demonstrate to the health authorities in each of our jurisdictions that we can return in a safe and responsible manner — taking into account always, the health and safety of our players and everyone associated with the league. And then secondly, is to arrive at a capacity that will allow our teams to resume operations.”

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Robison says at this moment in time, owners are willing to accept an approximately 50 per cent minimum capacity from health officials. But that has to be agreed upon before the puck is even close to being dropped. The league has also announced a new streaming service that could become an important revenue source to help offset potential losses at the gate.

The WHL, which includes the Winnipeg Ice and Brandon Wheat Kings, had to postpone the 2019-20 season on March 12. Less than two weeks later on March 23, the decision was made to cancel the remaining two weeks of the schedule.

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Friday, Oct. 2 is the “aspirational date” as one journalist described it, for opening night for a full 68 game schedule. But like almost everything else, there are so many other factors involved, and at the top of the list is making sure all 22 teams in each of the four provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C.) and two U.S. states (Washington, Oregon) that make up the WHL have the official go-ahead to start playing.

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“Our position is we’re looking at all jurisdictions being open before we start the season. That’s going to be critical.”

“If we feel there’s one that is weeks away or a short period of time away, we might consider how we could schedule around that,” said Robison. “We look at different jurisdictions and we understand that there’s a different reopening schedule in those locations. However, our commitment is to adjust our schedule to a later start date if necessary in order to accommodate those jurisdictions.”

Robison figures a full schedule of 68 games could still be achieved, even if the season didn’t get underway until early December. But that would require some modification of the playoffs, and cooperation from the Canadian Hockey League. A push to January would make that admittedly “more difficult to accomplish.”

Robison would not discount teams playing within their own divisions, at least to start the season. “We’re going to have to look at this entirely different than we have in previous seasons. I think the schedule forms the basis of what any contingency plans would be … to make sure we have a good sense of what access we’re going to have. I think everyone understands how flexible we need to be under these circumstances.”

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The closed border issue between Canada and the United States is something the league has not even addressed at this point, but Robison says that will probably become more of a focus later on in the summer because it will have an impact on scheduling, as will the differing scenarios for players leaving “safer” areas to play for teams that are situated in more COVID-19-active hot spots.

“One of the most important aspects of our protocol was to demonstrate that health and safety of our players is our No.1 priority,” explained the WHL Commissioner. “We will take all the necessary precautions to make sure they are protected. We have different circumstances in each of our regions and we’re going to be prepared for that.”

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