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Western Hockey League delays season’s start again, with no firm date to return

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 15, 2020

Spokane Chiefs forward Bobby Russell (21) and Vancouver Giants forward Jackson Shepard (18) compete for control of the puck behind the net during the first period of a WHL hockey game on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020 in the Spokane Arena.    (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Chiefs forward Bobby Russell (21) and Vancouver Giants forward Jackson Shepard (18) compete for control of the puck behind the net during the first period of a WHL hockey game on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020 in the Spokane Arena.   (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Still without a clear way to play hockey and adhere to restrictions on travel and social gatherings in their six jurisdictions, the Western Hockey League Board of Governors announced a further delay to the start of the season on Tuesday.

This delay, unlike previous ones, didn’t come with a new start date.

“The virus is winning,” said Spokane Chiefs managing partner Bobby Brett, also a member of the board of governors.

As to whether there could still be a season at all, Brett said the board plans to meet again in mid-January to assess that.

“I still think it’s possible,” Brett said. “There’s a chance, yes. But the numbers on the ground and the local health officials will dictate that.”

In mid-October, WHL commissioner Ron Robison called Jan. 8 “a firm start date, not a tentative date.” In the news release Tuesday, he offered no new restart date.

“We continue to make every effort to get our season started, but our first priority has always been the health and safety of our players, and everyone associated with the WHL,” Robison said in the release. “Given the public health restrictions that are currently in effect, we are not in a position to determine a new target date for our season. We will continue to consult with health authorities to determine when it is safe and responsible to get our season started.”

When Robison announced the January start date in mid-October – the third time the league had delayed its opening – the hope was to have an intradivisional schedule of up to 50 games, so as to accommodate the closed U.S.-Canada border. At the time, junior hockey leagues in Canada were preparing to play under restrictions.

But with provincial and state authorities tightening restrictions in response to COVID-19 infection numbers, junior hockey has all but shut down across the league’s footprint. Leagues in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have all suspended play until at least Jan. 1.

The U.S. Division is composed of five teams, including the Chiefs, the Tri-City Americans, the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Portland Winterhawks and the Everett Silvertips. If restrictions are lifted in the U.S. before they are in Canada, Brett said the board would consider allowing the U.S. teams to play.

“If the U.S. was ready to go before other divisions, I think that would be on the table for discussion,” Brett said.

Until at least mid-January, though, the league will wait to make its next decision. Brett said the board members and other WHL officials are doing what they can to work toward some sort of season.

“Everybody feels for these players and wants to give them a chance to get together,” Brett said.

“In the meantime, there’s lots of work going on.”

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