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Can the Thunderbirds season start in October? The WHL is planning on it

The Seattle Thunderbirds could hit the ice in October according to the WHL's Return to Play Protocol (Brian Liesse-T-Birds)

The Western Hockey League announced Wednesday that it plans on playing a full 68-game season in 2020-2021 with a target date set for October 2nd.

After shutting down the league in March to ensure the safety of players, fans, and staff due to the COVID-19 disease, the upcoming season was the subject to a great deal of speculation. Would the league be able to conduct a season? Would it start on time? Would they play a full schedule?

Those questions have been answered, for now at least, with the league’s Return to Play Protocol.

“Our intention is that we will want to get our 68-game regular season schedule in,” WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said during a Thursday press conference. “That’s a clear direction that we want to achieve. We have targeted October 2nd, however, that will be entirely dependent on the discussions we have with health authorities in all six of our jurisdictions.”

The October start date is just a target and subject to change as the situation with COVID continues to be fluid.

Robison did not leave out pushing that start date back and felt that the league could still get a full schedule in with a start as late as early December.

“The start date will dictate the ability to get the full schedule,” Robison said. “We believe there is a way to do that, especially if we modify the playoffs. Everything is open to discussion right now, we hope there are enough weeks to get that 68-game schedule, that is our priority.”

With no major television contract and a number of small, community-owned franchises, the WHL relies on gate receipts and sponsors to survive. Because of that, Robison stressed that the league will have to be able to have fans in the seats in order to play the upcoming season.

They will be working with officials in their six jurisdictions – Washington State, Oregon, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba – to prove that they can conduct live games in a safe manner.

“As a spectator driven-league we need spectators to make it work, that is a key criteria,” Robison said. “We need 50-percent as a minimum capacity in order to continue.”

For the Seattle Thunderbirds, the current capacity at the accesso ShoWare Center is 6,150 so in order to play games there, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee would need to allow gatherings of at least 3,075.

Robison stated that all jurisdictions would need to have the approval to have at least half of their capacity in the building before the league would start play. Robison added that the league will start to get some answers from health officials in the league’s jurisdictions in around 30 days.

“If 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 play,” Robison warned. “We’ll need that spectator capacity to be resolved before we can play. We are confident we’ll get there.”

As of now, the league is planning for a normal schedule with interlocking games between divisions and conferences. That obviously requires a great deal of travel. The Thunderbirds eastern swing this year is planned to be through the East Division in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

That requires border crossings, something that currently would be a hurdle as the Canadian-U.S. border is shut down to non-essential travel.

“We are monitoring the border situation very closely,” Robison added. “This will be something that will be a very fluid discussion that will take place into August and possibly September before we can make our schedule.”

Border issues could result in a weighted schedule which would mean teams like the Thunderbirds and the Everett Silvertips play in division for the first half of the season.

“Anything is possible,” Robison said. “It’s going to be dictated largely by what the outcomes our discussions are going to be with the health authorities…I think that we are just committed to playing as soon as we possibly can in a safe and responsible way but I think we will have to be flexible in our scheduling. Stay tuned.”

‘Safe and responsible’ was the theme in Robison’s press conference Wednesday.

With players aged between 16 and 20-years-old, many traveling from small communities with few COVID cases to larger cities with many, their health and well being was the ultimate priority according to Robison.

He said that the league has protocols in place for ensuring player safety although the league was not in a position to release details yet. But, Robison indicated that the protocols included steps for handling positive cases and checking – he stopped short of saying testing – players to ensure it is safe for them to practice or play.

“Obviously isolation and removal from the environment would be the first step,” the Commissioner said. “Our protocol will address that, and we’ll release that at a later date.”

While there is still a myriad of questions and unknowns, the WHL is moving forward and planning on playing a season this year.

How that will look and work still remains to be seen. This week’s announcement does temper some speculation that the league would ultimately have to shutter for a season, which would have impacts throughout the hockey world, including the NHL.

“There has never been any discussion around not having a season,” Robison emphasized. “We are committed to having a season and playing this year.”

We will all have to stay tuned.