By the time the five U.S.-based teams in the Western Hockey League play another game, it will have been more than a year since they last did.
It’s a long layoff, one that Spokane Chiefs players and coaches have filled with all the training and skating they could do on their own.
But the process of returning to play is entering the reunion phase, heading toward the U.S. Division’s first games of the 2020-21 season on March 19.
“It’s exciting times, a unique year, but it’ll be good for everyone,” Chiefs coach Adam Maglio said. “It’s good for the kids, obviously, and the staff, to get back to doing what we love to do.”
With health and safety protocols approved by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office as well as local health authorities, the league is ready to bring the division’s teams back together at their home arenas – for four of the teams – so they can start a two-week development camp on March 5.
“I think there’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes work with the U.S. teams and state and local health authorities,” Chiefs team president Mark Miles said, “and it’s a culmination of four months of work to make sure we’re dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s.”
The Seattle Thunderbirds, Everett Silvertips, Tri-City Americans and the Chiefs will play in their home arenas but without fans, Miles said. The Portland Winterhawks, who have yet to receive approval to play in Oregon, will practice in Vancouver, Washington, and will play their games in the Seattle area.
A schedule has not been finalized, but the league promised 24 games for each team, all within the division, barring any COVID-19 issues.
“Being able to come down to Spokane to practice with your teammates, to be able to have coaching,” Chiefs general manager Scott Carter said, “to be able to do that and play as many games as hopefully we’re able, is gonna help (players).”
Although fans will not be allowed, Miles said the team is working on a plan with SWX to potentially broadcast home games. The league also has a streaming service to watch games online.
Of the league’s six jurisdictions, Washington and the province Alberta are the two to receive approval to restart play.
The five Alberta teams are scheduled to start playing a weekends-only schedule on Feb. 26.
Nearly all Chiefs players live in Canada in the offseason, and so they will begin a seven-day quarantine and isolation process on Feb. 20, and then they can make their way to Spokane, Miles said.
They will be tested on arrival, and then will quarantine within their billets for four days after that, with more testing at each step of the process.
“I think the protocols are very extensive,” Miles said. “I think the WHL’s done an amazing job of thoroughly putting the protocols together. We’ve been in so many consultation meetings with doctors to get expert advice, so I feel like our protocols are as good or even better than the NHL’s right now.”
On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Flyers became the fifth NHL team to pause its season due to COVID-19 cases.
“You’re seeing (in the NHL) that anything can happen at the end of the day,” Maglio said, “but we’re gonna control as much as we can control at the rink and away from the rink.”
The Chiefs recently held a Zoom call with their billet families, Miles said, and have worked through the health and safety guidelines with them. The response from families was good, Miles said.
Once the players get back into the Arena, they will spread out to multiple dressing rooms, Maglio said. The development camp group will also be much smaller than usual, with only up to 25 players there – essentially, their roster for the season.
While 24 games isn’t nearly the 68 of a normal season, the league is trying to give its players a chance to develop their skills and to showcase their abilities in advance of the 2021 NHL draft, which is scheduled to start July 23.
“This year will be a development season, so we’re treating this on how we can help players get better for the long term of their career, not just this year,” Carter said. “Any games is better than no games.”
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