In the end, for the safety of the players, staff, volunteer, the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) had no choice but to cancel the 2020-2021 season.
That is what WSHL commissioner Ron White told the Town and Country This Week.
The WSHL is a Tier-II junior hockey league. It differs from traditional junior hockey leagues in that it is a tuition-based league, which means players have to pay a fee to play. The majority of the now 11-team league are in the U.S.
In addition to being the league commissioner, White is the owner of the Barrhead Bombers. The 2019-2020 season was the Bombers’ inaugural season after having relocated from Long Beach, Calif. The league suspended operations due to the coronavirus March 12, just before the Bombers were to play the Hinton Wildcats in the first round of the WSHL playoffs.
Just as with the decision to cancel the playoffs, he said, it was done to protect all involved.
Although many jurisdictions have or are predicted to relax their restrictions or guidelines to the point, where they theoretically could have started the 2020-2021 season if not delayed with an abridged schedule, It’s not a risk they were willing to take, White said.
He added unlike many other North American sports leagues, the WSHL is dependant on non-import players. The WSHL allows teams to have 14 non-import players, mostly European, with the majority of teams carrying the maximum.
Assuming the borders between the U.S. and Canada were open to allow team officials to scout and sign players. There is no guarantee that those borders would remain open so they could return.
Or even of greater concern is what happens to European players, or for that matter, U.S. players or Canadian players playing for teams not in their home country ... if and when there is a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases to the point the league is forced to cancel the season again.
"Then we would be faced with the situation where we have all these players that can't play," White said. "There is a good chance if that happens the borders if they were open, would be slammed shut,” White said.
He noted if that were to happen, the billet families of U.S. and import players unable to make it home would have found themselves in a difficult situation.
He said he almost found himself in that situation on the day they decided to cancel the season. At the time, White was at the Las Vegas airport waiting for a connecting flight back to Canada.
"If it weren't for the fact that my plane was four hours late in leaving, I would still be in Canada trying to find a way back home, because that night [U.S. President Donald Trump] closed the borders," White said.
It was the same night, the WSHL, emergency executive committee, decided to shutter the season.
He noted that when they made the decision, not all of the teams were happy, saying it is in the playoffs where many owners make a large portion of their revenue which help them offest the losses they accumulate during the season.
White noted there are also still a lot of logistical issues to overcome, most of the ice-rinks are still closed around the league, potential difficulties of quarantine and self-isolation, there are also financial ramifications of going forward.
He noted it would be difficult to attempt to operate in an already depressed financial climate, impacted further by coronavirus pandemic, saying it would be difficult for teams to come to sponsorship and advertising agreements, not to mention the loss of gate revenue.
"The NHL might be able to find a model to operate, but I don't think there is a single amateur or semi-pro league that will decide to hold their season under these conditions," White said.
He said the previously mentioned reasons along with the need to protect staff, players, volunteers and public health made cancelling the 2020-2021 season obvious.
"The sad part is that we were having a tremendous season and it is difficult to see it not completed," White said. "And not to have to wait a year to build on the momentum we had is disappointing, but it is the right decision and one we needed to make."
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