Cougars' season-opener set for Oct. 2

WHL opening date, number of games subject to change due to pandemic

While nothing is set in stone in these viral times, the Prince George Cougars are planning a return to return to the ice at CN Centre when the new season begins at home on Oct. 2nd.

After their season was mothballed in March, that’s the date the Western Hockey League has targeted for the new season begin, assuming the pandemic continues to diminish and the health authorities will allow fans in WHL buildings.

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Despite city council’s announcement this week that arenas will remain closed indefinitely as a Covid-19 cost-cutting measure, the Cougars have remained in daily discussions with city staff and the team is confident their rink will be ready for the scheduled start of training camp Sept. 15.

“Everything continues to be tentative and the idea that they’re not opening the arenas for now is just that, it’s for now, and we have no reason to believe that once there is certainty to the start of our season that the ice will be installed and we’ll be ready to go,” said Andy Beesley, the Cougars vice-president, business.

“From the Cougars’ point of view, we want to be good partners with the city. Obviously we want ice in the arenas and want hockey to be happening but we also have to understand we have to be patient and wait until we can open up properly.”

The league has planned for a full 68 game-season for each of its 22 teams and all teams are in agreement; without clearance to put bums in seats, there’s no viable way the league can operate. Beesley said the league’s return-to-play protocol suggests teams be limited to no less than 50 per cent capacity when the puck drops on the 2020-21 season in October and that would gradually increase through the season. An Oct. 2nd season start would be two weeks later than normal.

“We would all be naïve to think that’s the only scenario, that is the only official one that’s out right now but behind the scenes we’re all fully aware we may well have to do some dramatic revisions to that as we get closer to the season start,” said Beesley. “If we have to do the six-feet-apart distancing that creates a real challenge that will severely limit the number of people we’re able to have in our arena.”

Later start dates and fewer games have also been discussed as possibilities for the next WHL season. At least a dozen schedules have been drawn up in the league’s return-to-play plan.

Beesley said all Cougar season ticket holders have all been contacted by the team and he’s confident they will continue to support a team that averaged just 2,333 fans per game in a rink last season playing in a rink with a capacity close to 6,000. With less space in the CN Centre stands available, he encourages people to lock up their seats early to help guarantee they will get to sit where they want to. If for any reason the season is in jeopardy he said the Cougars will be quick to provide refunds.

The other wrinkle the WHL faces is that six WHL teams are in based in the United States, which has had more difficulty than Canada containing the virus. The U.S.–Canada border remains closed and rules on self-isolating there’s still uncertainty over the logistics of allowing hockey teams to move between the two countries. One of the WHL scheduling scenarios has the six U.S. Division teams playing only each other and the 16 Canadian-based teams playing only themselves.

“Between the WHL and all our teams I think everything is on the table,” said Beesley. “From a scheduling point of view there’s probably a dozen different scenarios out there. Our plans are to follow the health authority’s guidelines and our Number 1 priority has to be the safety of our players and our fans and everybody involved with the team.”

With airlines operating on reduced schedules and fewer planes in the air, Beesley said the Cougars are concerned about getting the American and European players back for next season.

The WHL has been shut down since March 12, when it announced the 2019-20 season was on pause. At the time, the Cougars had six games left and were seven points out of playoff spot. A week later, the league canceled the rest of the regular season and on March 23 the playoffs were also scrapped.

The Cougars’ plan calls for a condensed training camp with fewer players invited than in previous years. Beesley said the club intends to follow through on a tradition it started a few years ago and will invite all 10 players picked this year in the bantam draft with their parents for two days of sightseeing around the city using the team bus just before training camp begins.

The Cougars, under head coach and general manager Mark Lamb, figure to be considerably stronger than last year’s version, with 2019 bantam draft picks Keaton Dowhaniuk (third overall), Koehn Ziemmer (fourth overall) and Kyren Gronick (26th overall) and 18-year-old Finnish forward Jonni Kärkkäinen (picked 12th overall in the 2020 CHL import draft) expected to contribute to a team which could include as many as 16 returning players.

“From Mark Lamb’s point of view that’s the goal for the entire coaching staff, is that every year we want to see improvements moving forward now and the difference now is rather right now than sitting and just crossing our fingers and wishing for improvements we have a plan a blueprint for success that is being implemented successfully,” said Beesley. “While it does take some time, we know this year’s team will have some high-end talent on it and we definitely expect to see some improvements.”

In light of the current health regulations on social distancing which prohibit close contact, the Cougars have voluntarily cancelled their annual hockey school, which usually runs during the last week of August. As a replacements for the hockey school, the Cougars plan to conduct minor hockey skills clinics during the winter, enhanced by game-day simulations using the CN Centre video screen and public address system during scrimmages, which will give young players a taste of what it would be like to play for the team.

The Cougars are the primary tenants of CN Centre and the cost of their lease is on a sliding scale of percentages based on attendance, food and beverage sales the city receives and advertising revenues the team attracts.

“The better the Cougars do, the better the city does, for sure,” said Beesley. “We’ve just had an economic impact study done (to be released in two weeks) and the Cougars bring in millions of dollars per year. Just the number of hotel beds alone and restaurant meals and the amount of dining out people do on Cougars game nights and the amount of charity we do runs in the millions of dollars a year that we contribute to the economic fabric of the city.”

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