The Western Hockey League is working on a plan that could see league play in B.C. begin in March.
WHL commissioner Ron Robison told Kelowna Rockets’ play-by-play man Regan Bartel the league expects to submit its proposal to B.C. health authorities on either Tuesday or Wednesday.
In B.C., current travel and sports restrictions do not allow for major junior hockey action, but the WHL has identified a hub city plan that includes a commitment to weekly polymerase chain reaction COVID-19 testing, a concept that could earn special exemption from the province.
Kamloops and Kelowna are the proposed hub cities.
The five B.C. Division teams — the Kamloops Blazers, Langley-based Vancouver Giants, Kelowna Rockets, Victoria Royals and Prince George Cougars — are on the hook for costs associated with the bubble plan.
“We’ve got to make sure we do this right, so we’re not sparing any expense with respect to what it’s going to require to make sure these hubs meet all the requirements health authorities will have,” Robison told Bartel.
If the plan is approved, the Blazers and Prince George Cougars would play out of Sandman Centre and reside in the Sandman Signature Hotel.
Tom Gaglardi is majority owner of the Blazers and chairman of Sandman Hotel Group.
The Victoria Royals and Rockets would play out of Prospera Place in Kelowna and reside in the Coast Capri Hotel.
Graham Lee owns the Royals and is president and CEO of GSL Group, which owns Prospera Place and the Coast Capri Hotel.
The Giants’ home base is yet to be determined.
Robison told Bartel the league does not require approval from the City of Kamloops to go ahead with the bubble plan.
“We do require their support, however, to use their facilities and provide the exclusivities we need for the protection of the players and teams participating because, of course, there will be no spectators and the facilities will be closed, for the most part, outside of the participating teams and a number of people who are required to be in the facility,” Robison told Bartel, noting both the City of Kamloops and City of Kelowna have been supportive of the league.
B.C. health orders are expected to be updated on Friday, Feb. 5, or earlier.
The tone of government officials, including Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, suggests the widespread relaxation of sporting and travel restrictions is unlikely, but a special exemption made south of the border sets precedent for something similar in B.C.
Washington state on Monday updated its Sporting Activities COVID-19 Requirements, adding a major junior hockey section that paves the way for WHL action.
Clubs in two of the league’s six jurisdictions — Washington state and Alberta — have approval from their respective governments to begin play, in both cases without spectators in the stands.
“It [B.C.] could be our last jurisdiction we’ll be dealing with,” Robison told Bartel. “We believe we have some very good discussions taking place right now in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. But, at the end of the day, we need the approval in those provinces, as well.”
There will be no inter-divisional play during the regular season.
In Alberta, league action will begin on Feb. 26. Each Central Division team will play a 24-game schedule that allows for a maximum of one opponent per week, with five-day breaks between weekend games.
Staggered starts to the season across the WHL seem inevitable.
League play can begin about 28 days after government approval is received, following quarantine periods and pre-season on-ice training.
B.C. health officials on Monday reported 21 further deaths due to COVID-19 and an average of 382 new cases per day over the past three-day weekend period. That includes 408 new cases on Saturday, 473 on Sunday and 277 on Monday.
Of the new cases, 194 are in the Interior Health region, which averages to 65 new cases per day. That figure is down some from recent weeks where the daily number of new cases in Interior Health has been pushing 100.
The province now has 4,134 active cases with 289 in hospital and 79 of those patients in critical care.
If a WHL club has one or more players or staff members test positive for the virus at any point in the season, the club will be required to suspend activities for a minimum of 14 days, according to a league press release.
“We are talking about what is rational given our epidemiology and what’s happening around the province,” Dr. Henry told CFJC reporter Chad Klassen on Monday in a press conference. “I have not seen that particular plan that you reference, but we have been in discussion with the WHL about potential for a season at some point in the future, when the epidemiology allows it.”