With the four Canadian provinces and two U.S. states revealing their re-opening plans to try to get to a new normal, we can start to figure out whether we will have WHL hockey in the 2020-21 season. I want to attempt to do this in this piece but first a few disclaimers:
- The contents of this opinion piece assume we don’t have a vaccine before the scheduled start date of the 2020-21 season. There is a group at Oxford University that is aiming to have a vaccine by September, but most estimates suggest we are anywhere from 12-18 months away from a vaccine.
- I am not a public health expert and any decisions about WHL hockey in 2020-21 should be made between the public health experts and the WHL.
- I have no insight into what the WHL is or isn’t considering for the 2020-21 season and this article is not meant to outline their plan.
With that out of the way, let’s try to unpack what would need to happen for us to all be able to enjoy WHL hockey in 2020-21.
The most important part of this discussion will be what the public health experts say. The WHL could put together a great plan for a return to play in 2020-21, but if public health experts don’t sign off on it, it’s not going anywhere. The good news for fans is that each of the governments seems to be open to the idea of sports returning amid the COVID-19 pandemic to varying extents, but they all agree that if sports do return it will be without fans in the building.
That raises our first problem with a return for the WHL in 2020-21. It’s no secret that the WHL is a gate-driven league, they need to have butts in the seats to make the financials work. What the extent of the reliance on fans is, remains unclear as the WHL does not release their financial statements. However, we can get a sense of how much money we are talking about by doing some math. The average WHL ticket costs between $15-$20 depending on where you are, and average attendance is in the neighbourhood of 4000.
Let’s take a ticket price of $17, multiply it by 4000 fans and multiply that by 34 home games. That puts the number from ticket sales alone at $2.312 million dollars. That’s a lot of money that the WHL would have to recoup, and that number doesn’t take into account concession sales or merchandise sales that would be impacted dramatically as well.
The league would have to recoup at least some of that money in order to play in 2020-21, and there are ways that can be done. The agreement between the CHL and Sportsnet likely handcuffs the WHL from a major national television deal, but if the WHL is able to reach broadcast agreements with regional TV outlets, that would certainly help to solve the financial issues that would arise.
The WHL streaming deal with Endeavor Streaming was extended last September for the 2019-20 season but has not yet been extended for 2020-21. We don’t have numbers on how much money the WHL made from streaming in 2019-20 but they will no doubt look for a very profitable agreement if they intend to play in 2020-21.
While there have been no reports yet of the WHL seeking financial support from any level of government, but that is also something that would have to be looked at as well. I’m keeping my eye on how negotiations go between the BCHL and the B.C. government as well as the CFL and the federal government. Positive outcomes in those cases would be great news for WHL fans.
If the WHL clears that hurdle, and it will by no means be an easy one to clear, the next hurdle to clear is the Canadian border. The border currently remains closed to all non-essential travel from non-Canadian residents and will remain closed until at least May 21st. If the border is still closed in September, that will prevent teams in the U.S. division from crossing the border or having any of their Canadian players report to the clubs. It would also impact import players from playing in the WHL until the border reopened. The NHL is in discussions with the federal government to get an exemption for its players, but it is hard to see that same exemption being granted for junior hockey players. There is a small chance that the teams could bring the players over 14 days before they are needed and having them self-isolate before hitting the ice with their teammates.
Should the border remain closed and the WHL decides that they are willing to play the 2020-21 season without its U.S. division and import players, you can finally start to look at a potential schedule for the season. We have heard the term “hub cities” a lot when it comes to professional sports, and I would not be surprised to see the WHL look at a similar model. These so-called hub cities would allow the league to cut travel costs substantially and would ease some public health concerns over large amounts of travel.
One of the problems with the idea of hub cities for the WHL would be what to do with the players. WHL players live with billets, and that is a hard enough adjustment for teenagers to make as they leave home. Expecting these teenagers to descend on hub cities and live out of hotels for months on end is too great of an ask in my opinion. So perhaps the league looks to a schedule that only includes divisional or conference games.
If the WHL can get all of that figured out, we return to public health. WHL players would have to be regularly tested to ensure that no positive cases of COVID-19 arise. If a positive case arises, public health officials have said the league would have to shut down for two weeks, before they could resume play. A lot will change between now and September but players would also likely have to follow strict social distancing guidelines if not a full-on quarantine. That is a huge expectation from professional athletes, and to expect the same from young teenagers seems almost impossible.
With all that out of the way, I think it quickly becomes obvious that seeing WHL hockey in the 2020-21 season is incredibly unlikely, if not outright impossible if we do not have a COVID-19 vaccine. That will be disappointing news for WHL fans to hear, but it is the likely reality of the world we live in. That said, it does not make sense for the WHL to cancel the 2020-21 season anytime soon. There is so much that could change between now and September and there are so many avenues the league will need to explore. For now, let’s remember to be kind, be calm, and be safe and we’ll all get through these unprecedented times together.