Hockey

Upcoming WHL season in jeopardy without fans in seats, commissioner says

Western Hockey League teams need their arenas at least half full with spectators next season to operate, according to the league's commissioner.

Ticket-driven league says minimum 50 per cent capacity necessary in order to operate

Regina Pats defenceman Brady Pouteau, left, fights for control of the puck with Swift Current Broncos defenceman Noah King during the 2018 Memorial Cup. On Thursday, the WHL commissioner said the 2020-21 season could be in jeopardy without at least 50 per cent of the stands filled. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Western Hockey League teams need their arenas at least half full with spectators next season to operate, according to the league's commissioner.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down large gatherings of people across North America over fears of a rapid spread of the virus.

Some sports leagues are rebooting, or planning to reboot, with games in empty stadiums and arenas.

Major junior hockey is ticket-driven and doesn't have a lucrative broadcast rights deal to fall back on, WHL commissioner Ron Robison said Thursday.

"As a spectator-driven league, we need spectators to make it work," Robison told reporters Thursday on a conference call.

"[We need] to arrive at a capacity that will allow our teams to resume operations. We have set at the present time approximately a minimum of 50 per cent capacity for that to occur.

"In the event we can't get to a certain spectator level that will allow our teams to operate, we will not be in a position to start play."

Border restrictions another factor

The WHL consists of 22 teams spread across Canada's four western provinces and the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon.

Six jurisdictions with different levels of infection, health restrictions and re-launch plans, plus a currently closed Canada-U.S. border make planning for a 2020-21 season complicated, Robison acknowledged.

The WHL's goal is a full 68-game regular season starting Oct. 2, with training camps opening Sept. 15.

"We need all six of our jurisdictions, the four western provinces and obviously Washington and Oregon to be ready to go in order to start our season, so this may in fact require us to consider a later start date," the commissioner said.

"The start date will dictate our ability to get to our full 68-game schedule. If we get to a January start date, that's going to be very difficult to accomplish.

"We think we can get that accomplished if we start as late as early December."

British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, when asked about Robison's comments, could not confirm whether or not fans would be allowed in arenas later this year.

"I do absolutely recognize that there are many leagues, not just hockey, that are dependent on receipts at the gate to keep them going. So, that is a challenge that we're all facing," Henry said.

Major junior hockey shutdowns

The 18-team Quebec Major Junior Hockey League also wants to play a 68-game schedule starting Oct. 1.

The 20-team Ontario Hockey League has yet to detail its objectives for next season other than commissioner Dave Branch saying in a statement "we plan to drop the puck in the fall and will follow the lead of government and public health agencies on when it is safe to get back on the ice."

All three major junior leagues under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League had their 2019-20 seasons cut short by the pandemic.

Playoffs and the Memorial Cup in Kelowna, B.C., were cancelled.

The WHL encompasses the most provinces and states of the three leagues.

"We have different circumstances in each of our locations and regions and consequently we're going to be prepared for that," Robison said.

"We might have a completely different looking schedule than we traditionally have. Is more divisional play something we're considering? Absolutely."

Robison adds that the Canada-U.S. border being closed to non-essential travel until July 21 delays any scheduling for next season.

"The first things we say to our clubs is 'let's be patient through this process,"' he said.

"We may be right up until some time in August before we can determine what our schedule looks like."

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