The Western Hockey League has pushed back its tentative start date a couple of times, but when the league announced on Wednesday that Jan. 8 would be the start of the regular season, it wasn’t just written in pencil.
“This is not a tentative date, this is a firm date — we are going to start on Jan. 8,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said.
Robison provided more details Thursday on the league’s return to play, and said that as many as 50 regular season games could be played by teams between Jan. 8 and May 2.
Teams will exclusively face divisional rivals, meaning the Lethbridge Hurricanes will face just the other four Alberta-based teams: the Medicine Hat Tigers, Calgary Hitmen, Red Deer Rebels and Edmonton Oil Kings.
The competition might be clear but many other things are still unclear for the WHL. The biggest question is whether or not fans will be allowed in the stands.
“Those discussions are ongoing and we’re looking forward to getting some clarification on that soon,” Robison said.
The commissioner said he hopes the league could see somewhere close to 50 per cent capacity in buildings, but that will all depend on what is allowed by each of the six provincial and state jurisdictions covered by the WHL.
“The number may be significantly lower than 50 per cent, just given the health restrictions,” he said.
Those restrictions will spell a big hit to revenue, even with the WHL improving its streaming service for fans to watch at home — meaning significant financial losses for all clubs.
“I don’t believe we’re at risk of losing any franchises, but it will be a difficult situation for our teams to work their way through,” Robison said.
“From an ownership perspective, I admire their commitment to the players, to get the season started and to work our way through this, but there’s going to be significant financial losses for all of our clubs without question.”
As a cost-saving and safety precaution, Robison said the league is planning to limit overnight stays for teams on the road.
The WHL has named Dr. Dhiren Naidu of Edmonton as the league’s chief medical adviser following his work leading the NHL’s playoff bubble. Naidu will help with the development and implementation of health and safety protocols.
Lethbridge Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt said no matter what those guidelines are, his team is happy to follow them.
“Just tell us what we have to do and we’ll do it,” he said. “There’s still a lot of questions to be answered about things, but at least we know that we’re going to move forward as a league and that’s exciting.”
With the start date set, Anholt can now shift his focus to preparing for the arrival of players after Christmas, for a condensed camp and even some exhibition games before Jan. 8.
Only a handful of Canes players are currently living and training in Lethbridge, including goaltender Carl Tetachuk who hails from the city.
“It’s been a long wait,” Tetachuk said. “I’m pretty excited to get things started here in January and I’m pretty sure our whole team is pumped about it.
“It’ll obviously be a little different, but as long as we get to play I have no complaints.”
The WHL is hoping to have more details on scheduling by the middle or end of November.