“The Almighty Dollar.”
It’s, undoubtedly, the answer on the card that the late, great Johnny Carson would “psychically” come up with during his wildly popular, “Carnac the Magnificent” bits on “The Tonight Show” when it comes to answering today’s question…”Why is the (insert professional sports league name here) returning to action amid the COVID-19 pandemic?”
Unfortunately, the answer is not nearly as funny as it is truthful!
If you think money isn’t at the root of the NHL, the NBA and the PGA Tour re-starting their 2019-20 seasons while Major League Baseball, the Canadian Elie Basketball League and the NFL begin their 2020 campaigns…you’re fooling yourself! Sure, if you’re reading this, you are a WHL nut specifically, a hockey fan in general and, in all likelihood, a sports supporter…no matter what the game is!
You’re craving this!!
But how long will that craving last? That is a secondary reason for the sports leagues starting up that are doing so…they see a need to get their product back out in front of the ticket, TV subscription, and merchandise-buying public…
…before those people realize that they don’t need sports! They’ve already gone four months without it. The disposable income they’re saving is being used on other things! Or, how about something novel like putting that money into a savings account!!
So, as the pro leagues begin their questionable “Return to Play” plans…specifically, the NHL…the eyes of fans of the Western Hockey League turn to the major junior loop and wonder, “When are you guys coming back?”
It’s a question I get almost every time I speak to someone on the phone or go to the grocery store or the gas station or to the golf course. For now, I only answer with the facts as I have them…the WHL’s Return to Play protocol calls for an October 2 start of the season, with a lot of caveats attached to that!
Truth be told, I want that to happen. I want to be in a rink in mid-September watching the Saskatoon Blades skate back out onto the ice for training camp. If I have to wear a mask to do so…as I saw Peter Loubardias and Ryan Leslie doing so at Monday’s start of Calgary Flames’ Return to Play camp…hey, I’ve got three masks in my vehicle ready to go! I’ll wear the mask to call play-by-play for the first pre-season game and any subsequent broadcasts if required to do so. I’ll drive separately from the team on the road to call the games if need be!
Lou’s BACK. pic.twitter.com/QBEdZRHhqp
— Ryan Leslie (@SNryanleslie) July 13, 2020
But, that’s me. I’m anxious to return and relatively low maintenance. Physical distancing, hand hygiene, and sanitizing my work areas have become routine. Transferring the habits won’t require much.
The same can’t be said for the operation of a major junior hockey team. A big factor will be the “opting out” of players. If a guy like Travis Hamonic of the Flames decides against playing in the NHL’s re-start because of health concerns for him and his family, what’s to stop the parents of a young player from allowing their son to head off thousands of kilometres from home…especially to some of the “hot spots” for COVID-19 that still exist and affect a WHL market, such as Benton County in Washington…within which the Tri-City Americans operate?!
What about billets in all 22 cities who have previously taken in young players willingly, only to opt out now because of the uncertainty of where that young man comes from or has been?!
“The Almighty Dollar” will play a role in the Western Hockey League returning to play. Every team needs a season to happen in order to make up for the almost total lack of revenue coming in over the last four months…and for the months of inactivity to come. Unlike the pros, the WHL doesn’t have a league-wide, lucrative TV contract and the individual team radio broadcast rights deals aren’t “cash cows” that rescue those teams from a sea of red ink on the financial ledger. Selling some merchandise and the odd season ticket package or corporate sponsorship helps a bit. But, with the uncertainty of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s difficult for teams to call on sponsors and fans for support when no-one knows when, and if, there will be a 2020-21 WHL season!
Unlike the Ontario Hockey League, which has one provincial government and one provincial health authority to deal with…plus two U.S. states, or the Quebec Major Junior League, which has four of each…provincial governments and health authories…and all of whom have done a very good job of flattening the curve, the Western Hockey League has six jurisdictions to get approval from before they can proceed. A huge factor in getting going is that all six jurisdictions allow for no less than 50 percent of seating capacity to be allowed in all 22 arenas!
That’s not a lot of “Almighty Dollars,” but it’s better than nothing!
It’s been quiet around the Saskatoon Blades this past week…but that will change later in the week as the team is planning on connecting with its fans in a new way!
Saskatoon Blades Play-by-Play
Sports Director, Saskatoon Media Group