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WHL aims to play full 2020-21 season starting on Dec. 4

Calgary Hitmen forward Riley Stotts watches a ricocheting puck along with Lethbridge Hurricanes goalie Carl Tetachuk during WHL hockey action at the Saddledome in Calgary on March 1, 2020.  Gavin Young/Postmedia
Calgary Hitmen forward Riley Stotts watches a ricocheting puck along with Lethbridge Hurricanes goalie Carl Tetachuk during WHL hockey action at the Saddledome in Calgary on March 1, 2020. Gavin Young/Postmedia

The Western Hockey League still believes it can have a full 2020-21 season.

The league wants to drop the puck on that season on Dec. 4.

Between now and then, though, there’s a lot of work to do.

On Thursday, the WHL announced its targeted return date and its plan to play a full 68-game regular season, followed by four playoff rounds. It’s an ambitious plan, but one that commissioner Ron Robison is confident his league can pull off despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re doing whatever it takes to get our full season in,” Robison said. “We believe we can do that even if we start later, so Dec. 4 gives us an opportunity to have some further discussions with the government health authorities in each of the six jurisdictions in Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest (where WHL teams play).”

Having teams in four Canadian provinces and two U.S. states certainly complicates the WHL’s plan to return to action. Each of those jurisdictions is facing its own set of challenges in dealing with the pandemic. The WHL needs to work with health authorities in Oregon and Washington State just as much as it does with those in Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Even if the league does manage to meet the requirements of each of those states and provinces, there’s still the matter of getting across the U.S.-Canada border, which is scheduled to remain closed until Aug. 21 at the earliest.

“It’s an example of one of the many areas that are outside of our control,” Robison said about the border. “We’re in discussions with both the Canadian and American governments on the matter and we’re monitoring closely.

“We anticipate that we may have to start our schedule by playing exclusively within our divisions or within our provincial and state boundaries … That would mean our U.S. teams would start playing games within their division and not worry about crossing the border. Obviously, as the season progresses we need to be able to have (American teams) play against, at least, the B.C. Division to make the season that much more complete, if you will, from the players’ and teams’ perspective.”

The WHL cancelled the remainder of its 2019-20 regular season and playoffs in late March, shortly after the pandemic had shut down large gatherings across the continent.

While the NHL was able to return last week and play in two hub cities with no fans in arenas, the same is not possible for the gate-driven WHL. Without a lucrative broadcast deal to help fill its coffers, the WHL’s primary source of revenue comes from having fans in the stands.

That could present another roadblock, unfortunately.

“We’re a spectator-driven league and we require fans in order to make it work,” Robison said. “We’re working with the government health authorities to see what level of capacity we can get to, but we need to get to a certain level to make it economically feasible for us to operate this season.

“We would ideally like to get to at least 50% (capacity in arenas), but we’re willing to work with the health authorities on what that would look like and certainly respect their position on, ultimately, what we arrive at.”

While there remain substantial challenges, WHL officials are confident they can be overcome. The league had initially targeted an early October return, but as the summer progressed it became increasingly clear that wouldn’t be possible.

There’s still work to be done, but Calgary Hitmen vice-president and alternate governor Mike Moore greeted Thursday’s announcement with optimism.

“We have a date to work towards,” Moore said. “We still have a lot of work to do with the six jurisdictions we play in, working with them on both the medical and government side to make sure we return in a safe and proper manner.

“We’re going to stay positive and do everything we can to get started on Dec. 4.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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