With the announcement that the WHL intends to play a 24-game schedule, many questions have arisen.
As of right now, we know that the league is going to play a divisional only schedule with the hope of playoffs after to determine the WHL’s participant in the Memorial Cup. There are still many questions to be answered like where will the US teams will play, can teams play with the COVID protocols in place and the dates.
In this article, I will explore one possible solution regarding how the WHL can start and finish the season safely.
The Western Hockey League is committed to a 24-game Regular Season for 2020-21.
— The WHL (@TheWHL) January 9, 2021
The idea of a “bubble” is not new. We have seen it in the NBA, NHL, and even MLB. Having two bubbles may be the easiest solution for the WHL. You can monitor the players, ensure that US teams can play without 2-week quarantines before the playoffs, and solve the issues regarding cross-province travel restrictions.
To do this would be a huge undertaking. You would need to decide between billets in communities for hundreds of players, or rent out hotels which can be costly. Also, you need multiple cities to ensure that teams can play a consistent schedule. Having a conference-specific bubble that is spread out over two cities is a great way to start the league up, and ensure that all players, coaches, and staff are kept safe during the season.
What could these bubbles look like?
The conference bubbles could be split up into two arenas within a short drive of each other. By having two arenas, you are able to play up six games per day.
For the Western Conference, Kamloops and Kelowna would be great spots to host that conference’s 10 teams. The 10 teams consist of five US teams and five BC teams. The arenas are separated by a two-hour drive which allows for easy travel between the host sites. As for the Eastern Conference, the 12 teams could play out of Moose Jaw and Regina. The 12 teams consist of Alberta’s five teams, Saskatchewan’s five, and the two teams from Manitoba. The two arenas in Saskatchewan are separated by around a one hour drive which allows for easy access to both. You also have enough rinks in both cities that would allow for practice sessions.
As for housing, that is where this gets complicated. It will be very difficult to find billet homes for five or six teams in every city, which is where the hotel idea comes into play. With the restrictions on travel, there are spaces available at these hotels. The cost is a giant undertaking by the league and these teams. You could negotiate with the provinces like the NHL did with Alberta and Ontario, but it is up to the league and teams to split the cost. There is also funding from Hockey Canada that could be used in this case. Money is a factor for some of these teams. There would have to be some sort of financial relief to ensure these teams and the league can make the bubble work.
What kind of costs are we talking about?
Even at a discount, hotel room stays are expensive. Generally, a team needs about 20 rooms to comfortably stay somewhere. If we are looking at about two months worth of staying in a hotel room, $60,000+ is not out of the question before taxes. This does not always include food so there is another cost for the teams to dole out. Extra security or personnel may be needed to monitor the kids so they aren’t out breaking the rules and COVID restrictions.
Arena staff would still be required and in some places, they have laid off a large portion of their staff. The teams also need their equipment in the city they are chosen to play in and a bus ride to the location. Don’t forget the normal expenses like equipment, sticks, training, and other incidentals.
What would a schedule look like?
With the use of multiple arenas, you could have games every day to minimize the amount of time spent in the bubble. If they were to use these bubbles, you could theoretically get the 24-game season done in two months. This means quite a few back-to-backs and not many rest days for teams. WHLers are already used to playing back-to-backs so this part is not an issue. Also, with the shortened season, you can play more often as burnout will not be as big of an issue.
The only main issue that comes up is finding time for school. Some players are still in high school so some type of remote learning needs to take place. With some schools already doing remote learning, this problem should be easily sorted.
The importance of having a season:
It is important to have a season so that players can get back to playing. This allows players to show scouts why they deserve to be drafted or signed. For those not in a draft year, the development aspect is crucial at this age. That being said, if the season can not be done in a safe manner, then that is a major problem.
Having the bubble is a great solution because you can monitor players, coaches, and staff at all times to ensure no COVID outbreaks occur. When you have an outbreak, it puts everyone at risk including coaches and staff who may fall into high-risk categories. You can not rely on these young players to just follow the rules no questions asked. We have seen in cases like with the Washington Capitals of the NHL, Oakland Raiders of the NFL, and Brooklyn Nets of the NBA that even professional athletes break these rules.
Having a bubble is a great way for the WHL to run the 2020-2021 season and ensure a team is crowned the Ed Chynoweth Cup.