Hockey amidst a global pandemic is a challenge. In the past week, leagues of nearly every sport attempted to return and nearly every one of them has fallen to the infallible force of the novel coronavirus. Despite this, the Western Hockey League has released a return-to-play plan for the 2020-21 season.

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Planning in the face of a steadfast force can be seen in contrasting ways, but the WHL is approaching the coming season with circumspect.

Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of England, was known for his meticulous planning. He said and lived by the words, “He who fails to plan is planning to fail,” not dissimilar to the WHL’s strategy.

With a plan, the league has a goal in mind and clear targets that need to be attained for a 2020-21 season to happen. League commissioner Ron Robinson spoke to reporters on Thursday and outlined the plan that was agreed upon at the league’s Annual General Meeting. There was a lot spoken about in the virtual conference, but it was the return to play at the discussion’s forefront.

The plan is clear- For the WHL to return in a financially viable form for 2020-21, arenas must be allowed to be at least 50 percent full, something not allowed under current government health guidelines.

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“As a spectator-driven league, we need spectators in order to make it work,” Robison said. “That is a key criteria.” While this is the only way for WHL hockey to work, it’s much harder to pull off than the other CHL member leagues. With the spread of the WHL, six government jurisdictions will have to agree to clear for large social gatherings. In every one of the jurisdictions,  the COVID-19 statistics are incredibly varied. The situation in Oregon is the polar opposite to British Columbia and dissimilar to Saskatchewan, but for the WHL to drop the puck, all will have to be on the same page.

The league is planning to hit the ice for a full 68 game regular-season on Oct.2, a day after the QMJHL outlined in their plans- the OHL is yet to release any return-to-play format. Should the initial proceedings be postponed, it would force a change to the playoff structure, potentially pushing the postseason into June, however, Robinson’s preferred route is to simply limit regular-season games with hopes of retaining regional sponsors and ticketing packages.

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What was clear from the commissioner’s comments, was that without 50 per-cent fan capacity, the WHL will not begin. Robinson has confidence that the league will eventually return, saying, “We think there will be a solution at some point.”

In British Columbia, gatherings are limited to a maximum of fifty people and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is not interested in adjusting this anytime soon. In response to the WHL’s plans, she said, “There’s no thought for changing that 50 number for a whole variety of reasons, but most of which is because when we have people inside in a small space together that’s a riskier environment, especially over a period of time, and it’s at the capacity of how we can effectively and efficiently contact trace when we have people in those environments.”

Portland Winterhawks/Western Hockey League

There is also the complication of the WHL’s American teams. Oregon, the home of the Portland Winterhawks, set state record highs for new COVID-19 case numbers per day last week. The league’s southernmost state has had 6,218 confirmed cases, Washington has had 27,19 and British Columbia 2,175.

The world is slowly learning that sport in the face of the novel coronavirus is a difficult proposition, making it unlikely a season will begin by Oct.2. However, the WHL now has a plan to combat the challenge which is the first step to returning.

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