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The WHL has set a return date - but the league needs fans to make it work

The league has six different provinces and states to navigate before it resumes for 2020-21, but the gate-driven circuit can't hit the ice without paying customers in the seats.
Vincent Ethier/LHJMQ/CHL)

Vincent Ethier/LHJMQ/CHL)

While the NHL is still trying to end its 2019-20 campaign, major junior is focused on a safe return next season. And there will certainly be some hurdles to clear for that to happen.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison spoke to reporters via Zoom on Thursday, one day after the league held its Annual General Meeting (also by conference call). The AGM covered more than just the WHL's Return to Play plans, but that's the crucial issue on most everyone's minds these days.

The most important bit of information to come out of Robison's virtual conference was this: for the WHL to return in a financially viable form for 2020-21, arenas must be allowed to be at least 50 percent full.

"As a spectator-driven league, we need spectators in order to make it work," Robison said. "That is a key criteria."

There are two major criteria cited by Robison in the league's Return to Play protocol: one being that minimum arena capacity for viability, the other being the ability to demonstrate to government health officials that the league can indeed responsibly return to the ice while protecting the health and safety of everyone involved. To that end, the WHL wants to have the go-ahead from all six jurisdictions in its geographic footprint: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon. Robison did hedge that if one of the six needed a couple extra weeks they might try to plan around that, but ideally everyone is on board before things get rolling.

Speaking of which, the target date for the 2020-21 regular season has been set as Oct. 2, with the league playing a full 68-game regular season (the QMJHL is shooting for Oct. 1; now word from the OHL just yet). Should proceedings need to be pushed back, the playoffs would likely be altered before the regular season is cut down. In general however, Robison would simply prefer to push back the start of the regular season. Maintaining the integrity of the schedule would help preserve season-ticket packages and corporate sponsorships - two obvious financial boons for the league and its member teams.

If the WHL does believe Oct. 2 is feasible, training camps would start around Sept. 15 (if the regular season is pushed back substantially, training camps would likely be shortened).

Because of all the uncertainty, it's possible the WHL does not have a final schedule set until August and possibly even September. Since border crossings between the U.S. and Canada may be a sticking point, there is the concept of teams kicking off the year with a slate of divisional games (the WHL has an entire division that is just American franchises). From the sounds of it, there are many contingencies on the table right now but no firm decisions - which makes sense since the pandemic situation in North America is so fluid right now.

"We are just committed to start playing as soon as we possibly can in a safe and responsible way," Robison said. "But we certainly need to be flexible."

What is clear is that without at least that 50 percent fan capacity, the season will not start.

"But we're confident we'll get there," Robison said. "We think there will be a solution at some point."

One unresolved riddle involves player transfers between major junior and the NHL. For example, if the WHL does start on time but the 2020-21 NHL season is delayed until say, December, what happens for players who are on the cusp of pro careers - like Colorado Avalanche pick Bowen Byram or Buffalo Sabres prospect Dylan Cozens? Ordinarily, these kids would go to NHL camp first, then either stay up or get re-assigned to junior for the remainder of the year. Robison doesn't know the answer yet, though he did speculate that NHL teams may keep their camp rosters small for 2020-21.

All in all, there is still a long way to go before anyone knows if major junior hockey will start on time next season. But patience is the name of the game and safety will be a priority with daily screenings of those involved. And of course, there needs to be at least some fans in the stands to make the money work.

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