Saturday was the start of the quarantine period for the Prince George Cougars and assuming all goes according to plan, 26 Cougar players and six team staff members will be contained in their Western Hockey League hub in Kamloops by this weekend.
The Cougars are slated to play their first game on Saturday, March 27 against a yet-to-be-announced B.C. Division opponent in their first of a 24-game schedule. From that day on, the Cougars will be playing every other day until playoffs begin sometime in mid-May.
“We were optimistic it was going to happen but there were a lot of things that had to happen before we could get playing,” said Cougars general manager and head coach Mark Lamb. “It was a real good proposal the league put a together and sent in to the government and health people and they agreed. The protocols are very tight, which has it has to be right now because it’s all about safety, and we’re thrilled that we can get going.
“It’s going to be busy. Once we get started, the season goes until the middle of May so you’re going to be playing every second day, pretty much.”
The players forming this year’s team will gather for the first time next Saturday in Kamloops, where they will be based along with the Kamloops Blazers and Vancouver Giants, while the Kelowna Rockets and Victoria Royals will me their hockey home in Kelowna. The Blazers and Rockets will live with billet families and the three other teams will stay at hotels adjacent to the two rinks. Once the teams are at their respective hubs the only travel during the season will be the two-hour trip between the two cities.
All players will get tested upon arrival in their hubs on Saturday, then will return to quarantine for another week before another round of testing. If nobody on the Cougars tests positive, practices will begin March 18 and the team will be on schedule to start the season on the 27th.
So far, that plan of attack has worked well for the WHL. As of Friday, 602 tests on players in the Central and East Divisions dating back to Feb. 27 have resulted in no positive tests. Since the league first began testing as part of its return-to-play protocol there have been no positive results in 1,099 tests.
Each of the four WHL divisions is operating differently. The five-team Central Division will play games in each of the five cities – Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. The Central schedule began last weekend.
The East Division, which begins tonight with the host Regina Pats taking on the Prince Albert Raiders, is sequestering all seven teams in one hub in Regina, which will also include the Brandon Wheat Kings, Winnipeg Ice, Saskatoon Blades, Swift Current Broncos and Moose Jaw Warriors.
The six-team U.S. Division will play all its games Washington state. The Tri-City Americans, Spokane Chiefs, Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds will each play in their home arenas, while the Portland WInterhawks, who did not receive clearance from state officials to play in Portland, will instead use the T-birds’ rink in Kent, Wash., for their home games. The Winterhawks open the U.S. Division schedule next Thursday in Kennewick, Wash., the home rink of the Americans.
Each of the divisions will have the first two rounds of playoffs within those divisions which will take the playoff schedule into June before the provincial and international borders have to be crossed. By that time more people will have been inoculated and the threat of the virus is expected to diminish.
The Cougars in their hub are allowed to have six 2005-born players and one born in 2006 (forward Riley Heidt, their second-overall pick in the 2020 bantam draft). The 16-year-olds and Heidt
The team’s invited list also includes seven 2003-born players, three born in 2002, seven born in 2001 (including world junior team goalie Taylor Gauthier) and two overagers (forward Ilijah Colina and defenceman Jack Sander).
Lamb and the Cougars will not be returning to Prince George at any time during the season and for Lamb that means having to say goodbye to his wife Tanya for what could be several months, depending on how far the Cougars go into the playoffs. The Cougars will be staying at Sandman Signature Hotel, which is owned by Blazers/Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi and is parking lot away from the rink at Sandman Centre.
“You never know how long we’ll be gone,” said Lamb. “There won’t be any interaction with anybody (outside of the hub),” said Lamb. “Obviously you might run into some people but you’ll have your mask on you’ll social distance, the things we’re getting used to doing anyways.”
No spectators will be allowed in any of the games and fans will have to tune in webcasts on WHL Live to see their team in action. The team owners are footing the bill with no source of revenue for a league that depends solely on gate receipts and team sponsorships/advertising.
“It’s a privilege to play this year, there’s no doubt about that,” said Lamb. “The biggest thing is the owners putting this together and being there for the players and for us, to give us a season. I give the league and the owners all the credit.”
LOOSE PUCKS: The BCHL last Friday chose to delay its decision on whether to continue with its plan to have a 2021 season while negotiations continue this week with provincial health authorities.... Lamb’s son Hunter resumed practice on Monday in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in his second season with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. The younger Lamb, who turns 21 on March 18, had two goals and two assists in four games playing centre for the Oil Barons in November before the AJHL was shut down with the COVID outbreak. AJHL teams will also be playing a 24-game schedule once play resumes.
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