Sask. WHL teams excited for upcoming regular season but much planning left to do
Big question is whether fans will be allowed to attend games in-person, as WHL leans on ticket sales
Western Hockey League teams in Saskatchewan say they're excited about the regular season announced this week, but there is still much planning to do before the puck drops.
The WHL season was originally set to start in October, but the date kept being pushed back. On Wednesday, the league announced the firm date of Jan. 8.
Teams will play within their divisions, although the Swift Current Broncos is moving from the central division to join the rest of the Saskatchewan and Manitoba teams in the eastern division.
"It's been an extremely long off season," said Tyler Wawryk, director of business operations for the Saskatoon Blades. "It feels amazing to be able to have that hard start date, be able to look forward to that and really start beginning our planning."
More information about the season, such as a schedule, won't be released until further consultation with provincial and U.S. state public health officials, including Saskatchewan, said WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said during a news conference Thursday.
The league is working with health officials to align their COVID-19 protocols for each division, Robison said.
Indoor sports such as hockey have been allowed to resume in some capacity in Saskatchewan since July 6, according to the province's reopening plan. But only mini-leagues, consisting of no more than 50 coaches, players and officials from the same community, are allowed under the current phase.
Different mini-leagues are not to play against each other, and travel and interprovincial competition is currently not allowed, per the health regulations.
The league is looking to limit travel — overnight stays especially — and is having dialogue with health officials in Saskatchewan and Manitoba about the WHL teams in those provinces crossing the provincial border, Robison said.
Discussion ongoing about fans in arenas
Events like junior hockey games, which draw thousands of people, are also currently not allowed under Saskatchewan's gathering limits — a serious issue for a league that derives a lot of its revenue from ticket sales.
"We're a very gate-driven league, so that revenue is basically our lifeblood. Without it, it becomes quite a challenge just to get back to play," said Nathan MacDonald, director of business operations for the Swift Current Broncos.
Allowing fans into the arenas is part of the discussions with public health officials. It is uncertain whether fans will be allowed in, said Robison, but ideally, arenas could be allowed to operate at half-capacity.
The WHL teams based in Saskatchewan are developing business plans that assume there will be fans in the stands come Jan. 8.
Although the Moose Jaw Warriors have held off from promoting or selling season tickets due to the uncertainty of fans and the number of games that will be played, said general manager Alan Millar.
"We're a little bit ahead of the curve here in Saskatchewan and… we have a pretty good idea that we're going to be able to have some percentage of fans in the building," said Millar.
"From a business perspective, there's still going to be challenges. Junior hockey doesn't work without ticket sales. So you have to understand that the teams in our league, when you look at a worst-case scenario, this is about protecting the system, investing in our players and having a plan to play."
The Saskatoon Blades are planning on being allowed to have fans, said Wawryk, as SaskTel Centre can seat up to 15,195 people. But the club is developing creative solutions that determine what seats are available, and how fans can move throughout the stadium.
SaskTel Centre has an upper and lower bowl, but typically the upper bowl is roped off because attendance isn't high enough, said Wawryk. So the team might allow fans to sit in the upper seats to allow for more space.
Stadium sections could become cohorts. Fans might only be allowed to enter, exit and move around certain areas, depending on what section they're sitting in, he said.
Wearing masks inside the arena will also likely be mandatory due to the sheer amount of people inside the facility at once, said Wawryk.
Should fans be barred from entering arenas, the league will make a streaming service available for all games, said Robison.
The Quebec government has earmarked $12 million for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, while the Nova Scotia government has said it will not provide funding for its teams in the QMJHL.
The WHL won't make funding requests to its members' governments unless the capacity for spectators is lower than anticipated, said Robison.