After two weeks playing hockey in a bubble, the NHL is proving playoffs are not only possible in pandemic times, but safe for everybody involved.
Sequestered as they are in Edmonton and Toronto, the surviving teams still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup have so far kept the coronavirus at bay, and the Western Hockey League is watching with great interest.
“It’s just incredible what they’ve done,” said Prince George Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb. “What I like is they’ve always said they are going to play and they’ve never backtracked on it. They went to all the health agencies and worked with everybody to create this with a lot smart people and a lot of work. They’ve made the bubbles, they had a return-to-play (plan), they did a collective bargaining agreement in this, and they did it all without anybody face-to-face.
“On a smaller scale (in the WHL), whatever it looks like, we’ve got to get junior hockey back playing, because it’s the feeder to the NHL. The Canadian Hockey League is the biggest development league for the NHL.”
Travel bans have forced a new way of doing business in the hockey world and like the NHL, the WHL has been forced to adapt.
“Through this pandemic we did the draft (bantam and import) online, everybody knows how to run meetings on Zoom now and I think that’s going to be the norm,” said Lamb. “The cost-cutting is huge.”
Now that the WHL has elected to delay the start of next season until Dec. 4 that gives the Cougars nearly four months to get ready to hit the ground running when the puck finally drops. Until then, planning for the new season is a guessing game. Until Thursday’s announcement, the league had been planning for an early-October start, with training camps to begin in mid-September. Those plans changed in a hurry and Lamb says he still doesn’t know when he’ll have his players in town to start team workouts and scrimmages. Like the rest of the world, they are at the mercy of the COVID-19 virus that is essentially making up all the rules.
“We really don’t know how early we can bring guys in, because it’s got to be a blanket, everybody has to be able to do the same thing,” said Lamb. “The start date is December 4th and all the rest still has to be worked out. Is it two weeks or a month? All the training camps in the league have to be consistent and we still haven’t got those details.
“We’ve got four months to do a lot of work, but we can do all the work we want, people have to be smart about the virus. When you get these nice summer months, people have been tied up inside doing the right things, watching the numbers go down so you think it might be gone, but it’s still around.”
The younger Cougars under the age of 18 are still eligible for midget hockey are they are being encouraged to stay close to home this fall to play regular shifts for their hometown teams and, if possible, practice with junior A or junior B teams, rather than waiting for the WHL season to begin. Lamb has been busy talking to player agents and junior and midget teams trying to find places for them to play.
“The biggest message I’m giving our guys is when this starts it’s going to be quick and it’s going to be busy, so be ready,” Lamb said. “Our organization is in a real positive spot right now. We think we’ve done a really good job in the draft, we’ve got a lot of guys sighed and I really like where we’re going. It’s just going to take a little longer.”
Protecting the safety of players and team personnel is of paramount importance to the Cougars and Andy Beesley, the vice-president of business, says whenever possible they will try to keep to themselves.
“From our point of view there’s lot we can learn from how (the NHL has) created bubbles for players and staff and I think there‘s quite a lot of that we can replicate in our own way and make it work for us,” said Beesley.
“We strongly believe that we can create these bubbles. Similar to the NHL, if there are daily checks and you’re inside the bubble we can create a safe zone for everyone involved. If you have to step outside the bubble or if somebody from outside the bubble steps in that creates a new set of protocols to make sure we are keeping everybody safe.”
The Cougars are taking a proactive and cautious approach to their business operations, following the advice of the provincial health office. They’ve scrapped their annual hockey school in August, which was a money-maker for the team, to reduce the risk of exposure. The entire Cougars staff at their CN Centre office wears a mask whenever someone enters their office bubble. Meetings with clients are held outside or in the wide expanses of the arena. They want everybody in the province to do all in their power to help end the pandemic.
“Whether you agree with it or not, put on your mask in public and keep away from large groups in public and don’t go to large parties and keep away from large groups and wash your hands,” said Beesley. “Even though it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant at times, we’re making sacrifices.”
The Cougars will be working closely with School District 57 education advisor Mary Lamarre to work out a plan to keep the players on top of their school work once the season starts. They are one of the most isolated WHL teams, which forces the players to spend more time away from their billet homes than most teams. Distance education and virtual classrooms players taking high school and post-secondary classes are a certainty.
“We have such an unusual life for these high school kids anyway with their extensive travel schedule and (Lamarre) is fantastic at working with us and they’re already doing a fair amount of distance learning without COVID,” said Beesley. “So we think this is a problem we can overcome and find a way to make it work so the kids are still getting quality education maybe doing it in a different way that does not include mingling with other high school kids or being outside the bubble.”
When the Canada-U.S. border will open and what arena capacity and physical distancing restrictions will be in place are the two biggest uncertainties facing WHL teams right now. The tentative WHL schedule includes several different scenarios and the Cougars won’t know for at least another month or two if they will be playing strictly within the B.C. Division, a distinct possibility if the border remains closed and interprovincial travel is discouraged. The December start likely means the 2021 Memorial Cup national major junior championship will be pushed back a month into June.
“Much as we all are desperate to pick which schedule will work for us, at the end of the day the COVID virus just doesn’t care,” said Beesley. “What we think we need to do as a hockey team is encourage the public to fight the COVID virus to let us get to the point where we can make these decisions but none of that’s going to happen until we get a handle on this virus.
“We’ve started to do some models on what it would look like whether we have reduced or capacity or increased distancing requirements in the arena and one of the things we are really are emphasizing with people who want to come to a lot of our games is we may have very limited seats available,” he said.
“I know it sounds like a sales pitch but once the season members take up their seats there might not be a lot left over for anybody, if any. If you think you want to come to some Cougars games this winter you may need to pick up tickets now and secure them.”