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WHL made it official Friday that it’s returning this year; how remains to be seen

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 11, 2021

Bear Hughes, left, of the Spokane Chiefs falls but maintains control of the puck against Max Patterson of the Everett Silvertips during the first period of a WHL game at the Spokane Arena on Oct. 6, 2019.  (Libby Kamrowski)
Bear Hughes, left, of the Spokane Chiefs falls but maintains control of the puck against Max Patterson of the Everett Silvertips during the first period of a WHL game at the Spokane Arena on Oct. 6, 2019. (Libby Kamrowski)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The Western Hockey League is back on.

At some point.

In a place – or places – to be determined.

Maybe even in a bubble in Spokane.

The details haven’t been made clear, but this is the promise: A season of 24 games, in some shape or form, for the Spokane Chiefs and the rest of their junior league.

The initial announcement was made in a statement from the league on Friday.

“We’ve committed to playing a minimum of 24 games. Where and how that’s gonna happen is still to be determined,” Mark Miles, the Chiefs’ president, said on Monday. “We’re exploring every option.”

In the 10 months since the WHL last played, Miles has met virtually and regularly with representatives from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, with local health department leaders and other league officials in the hopes of starting the 2020-21 season.

Meanwhile, players and coaches have been in stasis across the United States and Canada, practicing and training however they can.

But with other leagues restarting – along with the National Hockey League, which opens its season on Wednesday – there was a desire to tell players that there would indeed be a WHL season, Miles said.

Chiefs center Jack Finley, for example, has been at the Tampa Bay Lightning camp and on Monday was assigned to their American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. The AHL is planning to begin play in February.

Other Chiefs players could end up in the United States Hockey League, which has already played games this season, at least until the WHL begins.

Junior leagues in the western Canadian provinces will not resume play until at least February, in adherence to restrictions related to COVID-19.

“We’re (having) conversations daily with agents and players, and they’re looking for some direction,” Miles said. “It was a reassurance to our players that, based on state and local approvals, we would commit to having a 24-game season. But obviously there’s still a lot of challenges that go with that.”

Miles said he is hopeful three key sets of protocols will soon be approved, including the WHL’s Return to Play as well as billet and testing protocols.

“I think we feel we’re pretty close to getting those approvals,” Miles said, citing weekly calls with the Governor’s office, the local health district and the league, groups that would need to sign off on the protocols.

“They’ve all seen the protocols and commented, and I feel like we’re close,” he said.

Once the league and its teams receive those approvals, they could begin a 28-day process of reuniting teams safely, following quarantine, travel and testing protocols. That would give the league a start date somewhere between late February and April 1, Miles said.

But where those games would be played is still to be determined.

Whereas in previous months the plan for games was to stay within divisions – one of them including the five U.S. teams based in Seattle, Everett, Portland, the Tri-Cities and Spokane – more options are on the table now, Miles said.

The league could create a bubble to play in one of the U.S. cities, including Spokane, he said.

“We are working through the challenges on that,” Miles said. “There are a lot of steps we have to take.”

Currently the Spokane Arena is a COVID-19 testing site for CHAS Health, but Miles listed a few advantages for potentially playing games there.

“The one thing about Spokane is the infrastructure of the arena sets up very well, with numerous locker rooms, food and beverage on site,” Miles said. “A bubble concept in Spokane could work.”

Vancouver, British Columbia, is another option, one that would allow the schedule to be expanded to include more teams. In that scenario, the Chiefs would stay and play in the Vancouver area.

Adam Maglio, who lives in the Vancouver area, is still waiting to coach his first game as Chiefs head coach after being promoted in late August. He said he’s up for just about any arrangement, whether it means playing in a bubble, or driving home immediately after road games, or whatever other ideas might be on the table.

“If it allows us to play, I’m completely open to any idea,” Maglio said.

“(With) health and safety being at the forefront, and then what’s best for the organization, we as a staff and players, we’ll work around anything.”

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