The Western Hockey League plans to open its season on Jan. 8, and unlike previous dates announced during the prolonged offseason, this one has been presented as definitive.
“That is a firm start date, not a tentative date,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said on a conference call with media members last week.
The season would include up to 50 games in an intradivisional schedule to be completed by May 2. The hope would be to host playoffs in some form and then a Memorial Cup in June, Robison said.
But the realities of opening the season on that date – such as how many games teams will actually play, and whether fans will be present to watch them do so – are still uncertain.
The league has 22 teams spread across six jurisdictions – four Canadian provinces plus the states of Washington and Oregon – and each is at the mercy of local health authorities, Robison pointed out multiple times.
That means adhering to regulations about how many people can gather at team functions as well as how many fans can attend games.
For a league that Robison said is heavily reliant on ticket sales, the prospect of not having fans is financially burdensome for all its 22 teams, including the Spokane Chiefs.
“Can we play junior hockey, or minor league sports in general, without fans?” asked Chiefs managing partner Bobby Brett, whose family also owns and operates the Spokane Indians baseball team. “Fans are a big part of minor league sports.”
The COVID-19 pandemic led the WHL to shut down its 2019-20 season in mid-March, depriving teams of playoff revenues. That stretched into a delay of the start of the 2020-21 season as well, which normally would have begun in early October.
The Chiefs are managing, Brett said, although they have furloughed and laid off some employees, with more agreeing to salary reductions. The team received three months of financial assistance through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, he said, but that was five months ago.
“We’ve kept a healthy rainy-day fund, so I always felt comfortable,” Brett said, “because you never know what’s gonna happen.”
Spokane Chiefs President Mark Miles said he has been running financial scenarios depending on how many fans, if any, are allowed to attend games, and how many games the team is able to play.
“I’ve never worked this hard for all these what-ifs,” Miles said. “It’s a lot of number crunching.”
The Chiefs are also in regular conversation with Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, Miles said, about when sports arenas will be allowed to host fans.
Washington’s Safe Start plan doesn’t allow for “large sporting events” like hockey games until Phase 4. Spokane County – as well as the rest of the state’s WHL markets – is still in Phase 2.
Miles said he has worked with local health authorities in Spokane, which included a site visit at the Arena, hoping that they can craft a plan that would allow the Chiefs to host fans in Phase 3, if and when the county gets there.
“We’re working daily on proposals,” Miles said.
Commissioner Robison acknowledged that the circumstances are difficult from an ownership perspective.
“There’s gonna be significant financial losses for all our clubs, without question, because we know that we’re going to be dealing with limited capacity, far lower than what we normally are accustomed to, and that will cause some challenges,” Robison said. “I don’t believe we’re at risk of losing any franchises, but it will be a difficult situation for our teams to work their way through.”
Miles said he expected the discussion about fans would be settled by the end of November, which would be five or six weeks before players report back to Spokane after Christmas.
In early August, the WHL announced a target start date of Dec. 4.
“When you look at what we were originally trying to do (starting in December),” Chiefs general manager Scott Carter said, “players would be going back to Canada (for the holidays) and would have to quarantine for two weeks. It probably didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Starting after Christmas means that once players are with the team, they would be together without interruption.
By playing a division-only schedule, the five teams in the United States would avoid crossing into Canada until the playoffs, at the earliest.
But that regular-season schedule will not be released until mid-November or by the end of that month, Robison said, and the playoff structure may not be determined until later than that. Those are just two of many details the league has to finalize for a season that is now slated to start in less than three months.
“We can’t predict what the future might hold with respect to the virus,” Robison said when asked if the season might need to eventually be canceled. “We certainly hope and anticipate that we will be able to complete our season in full, and get our full regular-season games in and play playoffs and potentially the Memorial Cup. But that’s all gonna be dependent of course on how this virus progresses.”
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