On Wednesday evening, it was announced that the Western Hockey League would be returning to action in the very early stages of the 2021 calendar year. Serving as the premier major junior hockey league within western Canada and parts of northwestern USA, the WHL had seen its 2019-20 season and playoffs first suspended, and then cancelled altogether at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020.
Now, the WHL – in partnership with the Canadian Hockey League – has announced that it will return to play on Friday, January 8, 2021 for the first potential evening of games in the 2020-21 season. Although the date of the return to play has been set, nothing more as to schedule breakdown, the number of games or information on travel has been released.
However, the league has informed teams that every regular season game will be played exclusively within the boundaries of its set division. The East Division will be the only division not consisting of five teams, as all Saskatchewan teams, as well as the two Manitoban clubs will remain together. The Central Division will be made up of the five Alberta-based clubs, the B.C. Division will be the five teams located in British Columbia, while the U.S. Division will be the teams playing out of the United States (Washington and Oregon).
“The WHL is very excited to be opening our WHL Regular Season on January 8,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said in a league-issued press release. “The WHL is a world-class development league and we remain fully committed to providing our players with the highest level of training, coaching, and competition in the system.”
As per the league memo, the WHL will continue to work alongside the governing bodies and health authorities within Canada and the United States as to maintaining necessary approvals and to ensure the clubs, teams, staff and fans are able to follow appropriate health and safety guidelines, as set in place by those authorities.
With the four divisional schedules yet to be released and a decision on whether or not fans will be allowed in the host city venues for game action, the WHL has announced that all players will join their respective teams following the stretch of time generally looked upon as the ‘Christmas Break’, to begin training in preparation for the January 8 start date.
Also on Wednesday, the WHL’s sister league in Quebec announced that is has suspended all games in each of its two Quebec-based divisions for a minimum of two weeks. This decision of suspension until October 28 is based upon the recent upswing in COVID-19 cases within Quebec, including six of the 12 Quebec-based teams being located in ‘red-zones’.
Just this past week, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada announced 18 positive COVID-19 test results, while the Sherbrooke Phoenix also came forward with eight positive cases. Both teams have been in isolation since these separate announcements. The QMJHL teams based out of the Maritimes Division will continue play, with the exception of the Moncton Wildcats, who now have seen heightened health and safety protocol recently put into place by local government.
Last week, a staggering report out of Ontario revealed information that Ontario’s minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod announced that the Ontario Hockey League would not be able to go ahead with a 2020-21 season unless the league opted to remove all body contact, checking and fighting from its rules.
MacLeod stated that the idea of bodychecking goes against all appropriate social distancing measures put in place by governing bodies, and would not be allowable, should the season occur. “It would be safe to say that body contact, unless it’s incremental, will not be permitted as a result of COVID-19,” MacLeod said. “That would pose a challenge in terms of how they amend their play.”