Alberta has become the first province to receive clearance for Western Hockey League games to begin, and the Lethbridge Hurricanes will be among five teams starting their season next month.
The 2020-2021 season will begin for the Central Division on Feb. 26, after each of the province’s clubs undergo pre-season COVID-19 protocols.
“I think it’s exciting for our Central Division obviously, and we’re sure hoping that this will help in aiding the rest of the league to start,” said Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt.
The GM said he’s especially excited for the players, and gave them full credit for the patience and loyalty they’ve shown since the WHL halted play in March.
Anholt said while the excitement level will be at an all-time high when the ‘Canes hit the ice, the message from his club’s staff will be clear.
“Don’t just dip you toe in, like, let’s get going here,” he said. “This isn’t a situation where we just wade in slowly, let’s jump in.”
Forward Zack Stringer said he and his teammates are thrilled to jump back in, and they know how important getting up to speed will be in a shortened season.
“Just seeing the boys coming in, it will be good to kind of get that spark back for the game,” he said.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen a lot of these guys and since a lot of these guys have stepped on the ice… it’s going to be fun and everybody’s going to come in ready and in shape, and that will be the main thing.”
The expectation will be for the players to be fully committed both on and off the ice, with Anholt saying the plan is to be militant about health protocols, including with the players’ living arrangements.
“What we have done here with our organization is, we’ve talked to the billets, and we’re actually going to put the players into a residence and we’ve got staff members staying with them,” he said. “So we’re going to separate them out, for this year and this year alone.”
The Hurricanes roster includes a pair of players that hail from Lethbridge — Stringer and goaltender Carl Tetachuk — and both would usually spend the season living at home, but Stringer told Global News that they will join the team living in dorms.
Normally, players from out of town would spend the season living with billet families, but Anholt said the goal is to try and eliminate variables that the club can’t control.
“We’ve really, really stressed it with our whole staff, and we’ll make it a small group — a small cohort — down there with our coaches and our training staff and our players, and try to lock them down as best we can for the time they are here,” Anholt said.
The general manager confirmed that the Hurricanes will welcome a much smaller roster to town than usual, with just 22 players — two goaltenders, eight defensemen and 12 forwards — set to join the team.
Only two of the club’s three American players — Dino Kambeitz and Ty Nash — will be able to join the team due to the pair holding dual citizenship, and European imports Oliver Okuliar and Danila Palivko will not play for the ‘Canes this season.
Other than the start date, the WHL has not yet released the schedule for the shortened season. But in a news release Thursday, the league said matchups will be exclusively home-and-home sets on weekends, with teams taking a five-day break between opponents.
Anholt said he believes the format will lend itself to all kinds of excitement.
“You know we have great rivalries with them, and when you think of it as just being home-and-home games, two games in a weekend, those games are going to be intense,” he said.
The Hurricanes, Calgary Hitmen, Edmonton Oil Kings, Red Deer Rebels and Medicine Hat Tigers will play all games within the provincial boundaries of Alberta.
Provincially approved pre-season health protocols will begin Saturday, Jan. 30, with players and staff beginning self-quarantining for seven days before travelling to join their clubs on Feb. 6.
Upon arrival, all players and staff will be required to undergo COVID-19 testing, followed by an additional quarantine period, before on-ice training is allowed to begin in small groups on Feb. 12.
The league said WHL clubs are committed to providing private PCR testing through DynaLIFE Medical Labs to ensure no additional strain will be placed on public health. DynaLIFE’s testing was also utilized in Edmonton’s bubble during the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs and the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship.
No spectators will be allowed to enter WHL facilities.