Spokane’s fall sports calendar just got a little emptier.
The Western Hockey League is now aiming to begin a full regular season on Dec. 4, the league announced Thursday. That is two months later than the league previously hoped, and another month later than a season would normally start.
“Obviously right now the COVID cases are still spiking a little bit, and the league’s probably doing the right thing,” said Scott Carter, the Chiefs’ general manager. “I know they have task forces working in most states and provinces, working with governments … I think it’s the proper thing to do.”
The league is continuing to hold discussions with health authorities in its provincial and state jurisdictions, the announcement said, as it is prepared to take “extensive safety measures” in order “to protect players, staff, and fans, and to address key issues such as spectator capacities and border crossings.”
Commissioner Ron Robison reiterated that the league intends to still complete a full regular season and postseason.
“In our discussions with the government and health authorities, it has become apparent that additional time is required to ensure we can return to play in a safe and responsible manner,” Robison said in the release. “Our WHL health and safety protocols have been well received by the health authorities but we have several key issues that we will need to reach a resolution on in the coming months.”
When the initial delay to an October start was announced in June, Robison made it clear that the WHL was a “ticket-driven league” that needed to have fans in the stands in order to play.
Carter reiterated that on Thursday.
“We need to have fans, but it needs to be a safe environment,” Carter said. “Our fans can help by trying to stay safe and trying to control the spread of the virus. That more than anything will help us and other businesses.”
The Ontario League, one of the three junior leagues that comprise the Canadian Hockey League, also postponed its start to December in an announcement on Wednesday. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the third in the CHL, is still targeting an Oct. 1 start.
But the QMJHL has one key difference from the OHL and WHL: It has no teams in the United States, where overall COVID-19 case rates are higher than those in Canada.
The OHL has two teams in Michigan (Flint and Saginaw) and one in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The WHL has five in the United States: the Chiefs, Tri-City Americans, Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips in Washington; and the Portland Winterhawks in Oregon. It also has 17 teams spread across four Canadian provinces.
A 68-game season starting in December would inevitably lead to a condensed schedule, even with the Memorial Cup being pushed back a month to June , with more midweek games or three-game weekends. The WHL has not yet released a schedule.
“I’m excited to be honest,” Chiefs forward Eli Zummack said. “I love the weeks and weekends where we have lots of games. Games are ultimately the most fun in hockey. Practicing and working out is fun and all, but we’re there to win games.”
Playing at all, though, is predicated on the league’s conversations with health authorities, and at this point whether the league proceeds with a full schedule or something shorter – if anything at all – is still uncertain.
“That’d be superdisappointing,” said the 20-year-old Zummack. “I’m really hoping it doesn’t get to that. … Just seeing last year with the 20-year-olds’ seasons cut short (in March), that sucked. I couldn’t imagine a whole season being called off.”
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