All systems are go as the Western Hockey League‘s East Division teams prepare to drop the puck on a makeshift season in March.
Regina will serve as the division’s hub city, with all games taking place at the Brandt Centre, home of the Regina Pats. For the Saskatoon Blades, the idea of calling a rival’s rink home takes some getting used to but the Blades aren’t complaining one bit.
“We could be playing on an (outdoor rink) right now and I think nobody would really care. We’re getting an opportunity to get back at it and I know our guys are extremely excited,” said head coach Mitch Love.
“It’ll be a little different, maybe playing (Prince Albert) and we’re the home team in Regina. That’s what we’ll have to deal with but it’ll be fun. It’ll be a good experience,” added captain Chase Wouters.
A little different is an understatement. From living in dorms and undergoing regular coronavirus tests, to the lack of travel and even playing games with no fans, the campaign will bear little resemblance to a typical season.
Fortunately for the Blades, their head coach has already experienced what it’s like to play hockey during a global pandemic. Love served as an assistant coach with Team Canada at the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship, which also used a so-called “bubble” format.
“There’s certain things that through our experiences in Red Deer and in Edmonton that I think I can pass on to our players and our staff to be aware of. Obviously, we want to do this thing safely,” he said.
Every aspect of the WHL’s four divisional return-to-play plans — three of which have now been given the green light by their respective local health authorities — was created with health and safety as the guiding principle.
For the time being that means playoffs are not included on the schedule and should they happen at all, they will likely be limited to a divisional format only.
But even if there’s no league championship to chase, the Blades are still a motivated bunch.
Most players haven’t played a competitive game since March 2020. While some have been able to work out and skate alone or in small groups, the lack of gameplay has been a blow to their development.
Now they’ll once again have the chance to showcase their ability, whether for professional scouts or their own coaches, who will be using the abbreviated season in part to determine which players will be in the team’s plans next season.
“This is meaningful hockey. Over the last couple of years, this organization’s put a lot of time and effort into trying to put a competitive product on the ice and we don’t want to lose that,” Love said.
“We want to go out there and yes, we want to develop, but also you can develop a lot of things by winning hockey games.”
If that’s not enough, after a full year away, coming back to a divisional schedule packed with rivalry games should make it pretty easy to get fired up.
“I know it’ll definitely get the blood pumping and everyone will be very into it when we get going. It’s very exciting. We’ve all been waiting for this day for a long time,” Wouters said.
The East Division will be the second division to return to action, with games starting on March 12. The WHL has yet to release a full schedule of dates and times for each game.
The Central Division, which features the league’s five Alberta-based clubs, begins play on Feb. 26, while the U.S. Division, encompassing four teams in Washington and one in Oregon, will drop the puck on March 19.
The league is still working with health and government authorities in B.C. to secure approval for a return-to-play plan for its five B.C. Division teams.