If the Spokane Chiefs and the rest of the Western Hockey League return to play this fall, they will only do so if fans are in attendance.
That was the message WHL Commissioner Rob Robison shared with reporters on a conference call Thursday as he discussed the league’s 245-word Return to Play Protocol that was released this week.
“We feel we need to have spectators in order to make it work,” Robison said. “Obviously we’re a ticket-driven league from a revenue perspective, unlike other professional leagues or leagues that have the ability to have broadcast revenues and other sources of income. We do not.”
Robison said there were two overarching criteria the league must meet before returning to play.
“No. 1 is to demonstrate to the health authorities in each of our jurisdictions that we can return in a safe and responsible manner, taking into account as always the health and safety of our players and everyone associated with our league,” Robison said.
“And then secondly,” Robison said, “(it) is to arrive at a capacity that will allow our teams to resume operations, and we have set at the present time approximately 50% as a minimum capacity that we would require for that to occur.”
Robison deferred making any final decisions until league officials had more discussions with local health and government officials and said that they were working toward a more comprehensive document to outline a return to play.
Those talks are particularly tricky because the 22-team league spans the U.S.-Canadian border – the crossing of which for nonessential travel is still prohibited – and includes teams in four provinces and two states.
Each of the six jurisdictions have set their own process of a phased return to normalcy. Gatherings of more than 50 people – such as inside a hockey arena – are not allowed until Phase 4 in Washington state, as the phase is currently outlined. Spokane County is currently in Phase 2.
Opening night is tentatively set for Oct. 2, Robison said.
“The position we have taken is that we need all six of our jurisdictions to be ready to go in order to start our season,” Robison said. “This may require a later start date.”
Even if the league can’t start games until December, Robison said, his priority is to complete a full 68-game schedule.
“Making sure that we can get a full 68-game regular season is a priority in order to preserve season tickets and sponsorship arrangements in those communities,” Robison said.
As far as the Spokane Chiefs are concerned, they are preparing for any number of contingencies.
“You don’t want to completely waste your time, but we have to start planning things out, everything from sponsors to ticketing to pricing to what potentially the (Spokane) Arena would look like at different percentages of capacities,” said Spokane Chiefs President Mark Miles. “It’s a lot of planning right now for what-ifs.”
Miles said the team is planning for an Oct. 2 start date with a Sept. 15 beginning to training camp but they also have run financial and scheduling scenarios for starting later.
“If we get started all the way to Dec. 1 we can still get a 68-game schedule in,” Miles said.
Shortened playoffs and a delayed Memorial Cup are both possibilities in case the league cannot start Oct. 2, Robison said, and that they might not know until August what the schedule will look like.
It is also possible, Robison said, that teams could open the season by playing games only within their division if crossing between jurisdictions is not an option based on the mandates of government and health authorities.
One U.S. Division team, the Portland Winterhawks, is based in Oregon. The other four are in Washington, including franchises in Seattle, Everett, the Tri-Cities and Spokane. Last season’s Chiefs’ schedule included 36 games against divisional foes – more than half their schedule.
As for the possibility of not playing, Robison and Miles both said that was not currently on the table.
“There’s never been any discussion around not having a season,” Robison said. “We are committed to having a season and to playing this year, without question. Having said that, the timing of (when) we arrive at these decisions is outside of our control.”
“It would be devastating if we didn’t have a season,” Miles said.
In the meantime, Miles said the Chiefs are doing whatever they can to be prepared.
“Whenever the government or health districts say, here’s what you can do, I feel comfortable we’ll be prepared and ready to go, ” Miles said, “whatever that landscape looks like.”
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