The WHL Tries To Take Shape And The Portland Winterhawks Grab A Backup Goaltender

The recent letter from Portland Winterhawks President Doug Piper shows  that the WHL is far from firm footing when it comes to laying down a schedule. The coronavirus has made things very difficult for the league, which is now approaching a year of being unable to have the players play. Portland Winterhawks Exercise and Strengthening Coach Rich Campbell has been hard at work piecing together workable protocols for the WHL and in particular the US Division in trying to get some sort of “season” played.

In the end, it appears to be a patchwork of four different divisions, each in its own “bubble” and with a bit different rule setup as to how each gets run.

Starting in the US Division, as expected, St. Louis Blues of the NHL will not be returning Joel Hofer between the pipes for the Winterhawks. The Hawks made a quick deal with a conditional, yet unreleased number draft pick in 2023 to Moose Jaw Warriors for the services of Brock Gould. Gould, a 6’5″ 200 pound goalie from Colorado, was the backup in the Warriors organization. With COVID-19 protocols, he was stuck in Colorado and unable to travel to Moose Jaw. As a result, his services became available.

According to Josh Critzer (now running his own website Pacific Northwest Hockey, formerly with Dub Network) and his interview with General Manager and Coach Mike Johnston, initially Gould and Dante Giannuzzi would split the duties, though Dante would be listed as the starter due to him already playing in the Hawks organization. 

The WHL in the US Division would not allow overnight stays, so the teams would have to leave the arenas, return home and meet up again later. Due to the restrictions in travel and distance among other issues, the Hawks will call Seattle home for the season. With the schedule listed at 24 games, the Hawks would call Kent home for 12 of those games plus 3 listed as them being the away opponent against Seattle for a total of 15. The other games would be played in Spokane, Everett and Tri-City as visitors in their respective arenas. It appears that the Hawks would practice in Vancouver, WA as Mountain View Ice Arena is closed to the public. The season would begin March 19, 2021. With that announcement, it appears the players would be housed with billet families, though nothing has yet been formally announced.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, who is the Public Health Officer in British Columbia, has not signed off on a return to play option as yet. Bruce Hamilton had offered a plan with both Kamloops and Kelowna hosting bubbles, with Prince George setting up shop in Kamloops and Victoria and Vancouver in Kelowna, but as yet that has not come to fruition. It would also depend on billet setups or other housing arrangements yet to be announced. Currently, only BC has no Return to Play announced in any capacity.

The Central Division would be only Alberta teams and seems to be the earliest in starting. The WHL announced the start as February 26 and for the first two weeks are listing  that each team would play 2 games per weekend. In the first pairings, Edmonton and Lethbridge would feature a home and home series. A home and home series would have Medicine Hat Tigers and Red Deer Rebels open up. Calgary would get into the mix on March 5 when they face Red Deer in Calgary. Edmonton would also play a home and home series with Medicine Hat that weekend.

The interesting tidbit came from Red Deer as they look to save costs and at the same time provide quality for their players. The Rebels like all the other teams have a  14 day, self quarantine which they had at a local hotel. However, going forward, it appears they would be the only team to fully encamp in their own bubble during the season.

In an article provided by the Red Deer Advocate Newspaper, the Rebels would not only play and train and the arena, but also live there.  In a remodel of the Westerner Centrium suites, beds have been installed  and along with a few other items on the arena floor, have made this a more encapsulating situation. 

From the Advocate: 

In Red Deer, the Rebels stayed in a local hotel during their quarantine period, much like Team Canada during its selection camp ahead of the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships.

The team said this week that the players will live in the Westerner Park Centrium suites, instead of using billets for the players this season.

“We agreed it would be the safest thing to do, the right thing to do, to make it work the best we could, to make sure we were following all the protocols and guidelines to be able to make it work. A lot of time and effort by everyone involved,” said Rebels owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter.

Since no fans will be allowed to attend games this season, the team got approval from the City of Red Deer and Westerner Park to allow the players to live in the rink. It was thanks to all those parties that they are able to have the players settling into arena living.

The plan also involved getting the suite owners’ support, as well as the players and their parents.

Team officials have set up basketball nets, spikeball and ping pong tables on the concourse to keep the players entertained. The suites will also be equipped with wifi.

“The kids are very excited about being here, they all showed up and are all settled into their own suites. The billets brought beds over and we borrowed some beds from other people. It’s actually really awesome,” said Sutter, who extended his thanks to all those who helped out in the process.

“It was a lot of work but the kids are really excited and excited about getting back to playing some hockey and getting going here.”

The players underwent COVID-19 testing when they arrived in Red Deer and are expecting results Thursday – with the team hitting the ice as early as the weekend.

When they do eventually suit up for practice, it will be nearly 340 days after their last game, a win on March 11, 2020, against the Swift Current Broncos.

“It’s been almost a year. That was the whole thing for myself, from an ownership point of view, we’ve gotta do everything we can to get back to playing for our players,” Sutter said.

“These kids are trying to make their careers out of this. This is major junior hockey, the next level is professional hockey. It’s the highest level of amateur hockey… and to miss a year of hockey as it is, it sets everybody back some.”

The WHL schedule has not been released and is expected in the next few days. The schedule won’t be fully laid out when it is released and will only include a few home-and-home games in March.

“It can change as we go along,” Sutter said.

24-game inter-provincial season on Feb. 26, with games only running on weekends between the five teams in Alberta.

Players were told to self-quarantine starting on Jan. 30 – arriving in their respective cities before Feb. 6.

The Calgary Hitmen had previously announced they will have a bye on the opening weekend – meaning the Rebels, along with the Edmonton Oil Kings, Medicine Hat Tigers and Lethbridge Hurricanes will open play between Feb. 26-28.

Red Deer will be without the services of their top defenceman, as Finnish import blueliner Christoffer Sedoff will not be joining the club because of COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions. Thomas Chlubna, whom the team picked in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, will also not be joining the team for the shortened season.

The roster for the 2020-21 Rebels lists 14 forwards, eight defencemen and three goalies, most of whom are returning from last season.

It also includes 16-year-olds Hunter Mayo, Jace Weir, Carter Anderson and Jhett Larson and rookie goalie Chase Coward.

Forward Josh Medernach and defenceman Trey Patterson, both played sparingly last season and are also on the roster.

Red Deer’s three 20-year-old players are Josh Tarzwell, Chris Douglas and Ethan Anders.

The WHL also announced that it would have all the teams playing out of the Eastern Division playing in a bubble in Regina, Saskatchewan. All the games would be played at Brandt Center with practices to take place at Co-Operators Center next door. All seven teams which includes the five in Saskatchewan and the two in Manitoba would fall under this umbrella. No schedule has yet been announced, but they would begin play on March 12 following the two week quarantine. One would expect similar weekend style matches, but as yet, the locations for housing the players is unknown. 

The WHL has developed an extensive set of protocols, to not only provide a safe environment for players and staff, but to protect Albertans in the community. The WHL will implement an ongoing weekly private PCR testing strategy through DynaLIFE Medical Labs. If a WHL Club has one or more players or staff test positive for COVID-19 at any point in the season, the Club will be required to suspend its Club activities for a minimum of 14 days.

Enhanced screening for all WHL players, billets, team staff and officials will take place on a daily basis, including regular temperature screenings as well as symptom monitoring through the WHL Athlete RMS Mobile Application. Masks must be worn by all WHL players at all times with the exception of when participating on ice for games and practices. WHL coaches will be required to wear masks at all times, including while conducting practice and while behind the bench during games.

As the WHL returns to play in the Central Division, no spectators will be permitted to enter WHL facilities. WHL fans can look forward to the launch of a brand-new live streaming service that will deliver the excitement of WHL hockey straight to their home. Details on the new WHL Live will be announced at a later date.

In the initial test of 245 people in the Central Division, none had tested positive, so the program now moves on the actual play. 

The Ontario Hockey League’s recent statement from OHL Commissioner David Branch shows that a season is still is yet to be confirmed. His statement:

First and foremost, the Ontario Hockey League is anxious to return to play and eager to get our players back on the ice to drop the puck on a 2020-21 Regular Season. As we have for many months, we continue to work hard toward ensuring a safe return to play for everyone.

We are encouraged by our ongoing discussions with Government and Public Health agencies, but have not yet arrived at an approved Return to Play framework for the coming season.

The League will share more information with our players, families, staff, billets and tremendous fans as a finalized plan for a safe return to the ice becomes available.

David Branch,
OHL Commissioner

The QMJHL has a variance from a top of 25 games played by Romouski to just 13 from Moncton. The “schedule” which appears to run through June would be roughly 40 games per team. Unlike the other leagues, the Maritimes do allow fans to attend in the QMJHL having had extremely low positive tests and heavy protocols regarding Covid-19. In Quebec they do not allow fans. The Maritime teams did not receive help from the Provincial Governments, so any fan revenue would help offset the costs during the season. 

In no capacity are playoffs or Memorial Cup mentioned and can can be thought of as scrapped for the second year. Right now, just being able to schedule games is tough enough and one would expect that if the seasons from the leagues are fully realized, there should at least be good pickings for scouts who would then look to draft players to the NHL based on their findings. 

There has been talk of pushing back the draft of professional players which would hurt young developing players but also has seen the Bantam draft moved from June to December in order to allow the “seasons” to take place now. 

Currently, the leagues are in a state of flux with BC yet to give the green light to play and the OHL still in a holding pattern though they hope to begin some sort of a season in early April. What has not been discussed would be the teams in the OHL which are American, Flint, Saginaw in Michigan and Eerie in Pennsylvania which comprise three of the twenty teams.

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About Stuart Kemp 364 Articles
Stuart Kemp is the Immediate Past President of 15 years of the Booster Club. and has been following hockey from his native Canada since he can remember, though he can't skate, but played road hockey for several years. Loving hockey and professional wrestling, he has traveled to most of the WHL cities and with wrestling, has seen four provinces and five states. It is true that every Canadian city with more than 500 residents has a hockey rink, well at least it looks that way. Stuart has had his hand in every facet of independent Professional wrestling as he debuted as an announcer in 1986 which started his career.