“We are the least likely league in town to finish our season, but for now it’s a go.”
Those words, spoken by Winnipeg High School Hockey League President Dana Gordon on Saturday are not to be taken lightly. On Friday evening, it was determined by the WHSHL board that 2020-21 will be played, despite a dramatically-reduced number of participating teams.
As of Saturday morning, 12 of the 36 schools featured during the 2019-20 season had officially committed to participating in league play, with the other schools having opted out – either by ruling from their physical education departments, or through decisions made by their respective school divisions.
“We when we spoke to all of our coaches back in September, everybody knew that they very well could be handcuffed by their school divisions, administrations and the prospective schools,” Gordon told Game On Magazine. “I was very clear in saying that there would be no guarantees. If you plan to put all of your eggs in the high school basket, you might end up being disappointed. Obviously we don’t want that to happen, but of course a large number of our schools are not participating in our program, and the future remains unknown.”
Typically operating as a three-tier league with ranked divisions featuring 13, 15 and eight teams respectively, high school hockey within Winnipeg and surrounding communities has been a highly-coveted entity for students since its inception. With games starting roughly an hour after the final class of the school day, accessibility for players is at a premium. Generally, the high school calendar features teams playing 24 regular season games before a maximum of three rounds of playoffs. Other tournaments and provincial championships then follow.
As the league currently stands, the 12 schools set to play in 2020-21 include: Garden City, West Kildonan, Lord Selkirk, Westwood, St. Paul’s, Leo Remillard, Linden Christian, Lorette, St. John’s Ravenscourt, Steinbach, Fort Richmond and Louis Riel. St. Paul’s High School has a league-imposed deadline of Monday morning to determine if the school will host one or two teams.
The 12 participating teams are not expected to be divided into divisions, as has been the case seemingly forever, simply due to the ever-changing narratives surrounding extra-curricular activities throughout the various schools and divisions. Nine of the schools are situated from within Winnipeg, while the remaining three are from rural communities outside of town.
“There are a couple of restrictions that we have to look at from divisional perspectives,” Gordon said. “Some schools are not allowed to have their teams travel outside the Perimeter (highway), so that poses a problem. We don’t plan to drop them into divisions at this point in time, because if you have a small pool of 12 teams and you split them into smaller pools of four, (three divisions) and then what if two teams get pulled out of one division because their school has deemed it unsafe for them to continue participating? What happens to those other two teams? All the traditional ways that we run our hockey league are pretty much out the window at this point.”
Lorette, Linden Christian, Louis Riel and Fort Richmond spent the 2019-20 season within the league’s lowest division, while St. Paul’s, Garden City, Lord Selkirk, Westwood and Steinbach were all part of Division I. St. John’s Ravenscourt, Leo Remillard, and West Kildonan played within the second division last year. *St. Paul’s 2 was also a member of Division II in 2019-20.
Gordon, who is in her fourth year at the helm of the league, is optimistic that a season will be played, however, the logistics behind the amount of games, the structure and schedule have yet to be determined. Now, if one can survive the Churchill High School Grade 9 fiasco of 2018, nearly anything is possible, right?
“One thing is, we are the least likely league to finish our season, because schools and school divisions control what happens to those teams,” she said. “Whatever we move forward with is going to be very bare-bones and no-frills. Unfortunately we are getting to a point where it’s pretty much going to be, ‘this is what we’ve got for you, take it or leave it’. There is no good way that everyone involved is going to be happy.”
School division approval has also been an issue plaguing the Winnipeg Women’s High School Hockey League, as the executive board pushed back its proposed start date to November 1, 2020, giving teams until Wednesday, September 30 to fully submit rosters, based on the decisions made by the school divisions.
For Gordon and Co. the most important part of this ordeal is ensuring that the teenagers typically playing within the Winnipeg High School Hockey League have somewhere to play in 2020-21. Many players from school divisions/teams not icing rosters this season have already been involved in their local minor hockey communities, signing up for AAA, AA or even A1 hockey.
With the announced cancellation of high school hockey within various schools and school divisions, players who have yet to sign up with their respective Hockey Winnipeg minor area associations will quickly scramble to work their way into AA tryouts across the city. With AAA tryouts nearing completion, players from the WHSHL may have a difficult time squeezing into roster spots on either U-18 or U-17 AAA play.
A number of AA organizations across the city have already announced plans to host multiple teams at the U-18 level to accommodate for the influx of players still signing up for tryouts. Another option to which many players have already explored is that of playing within the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League, either as a full-time player or serving as an AP while suiting up in U-18 AA.
In pushing back the WHSHL start date to a proposed ‘early-November’ season opener, Gordon expects all participating schools to be fully in sync with one another and up to game speed by that point. Some exceptions, however, do remain.
“We do know that some teams have only just started to hit the ice for practices,” she said. “One of our committed teams, Westwood, is part of a school division that earlier announced that all sports and extra-curricular activities are on pause until at least October 14. So, if that date extends, they may not be able to participate in our season. But if it doesn’t extend and that gets lifted we want to give them enough time to get themselves together. We are going to proceed in the way that is the safest way possible for the kids – it’s going to be a lot different than what you have traditionally seen.”
2019-20 WHSHL Final Regular Season Standings:
|St. Paul’s 1||24||16||5||2||0||0||1||92||51||53|
|College Jeanne Sauve||24||8||12||1||2||1||0||67||87||30|
|St. Paul’s 2||24||10||7||0||4||1||2||83||65||38|
|Pierre Elliott Trudeau||24||8||10||1||3||0||2||83||83||31|