Inside the NHL

A disastrous opening month for the NHL on the COVID-19 front concluded last week with the league announcing its second set of pandemic-related safety revisions.

The first set two weeks ago, following outbreaks on multiple squads and almost daily game postponements — now totaling 35 through Monday — saw glass removed behind benches to improve air flow and players being told to arrive at arenas later and stay more distanced in dressing rooms. On Friday game-day rapid testing was implemented, penalty box glass was removed and players were told they and those living with them should remain home other than for hockey and emergencies.

The measures seemed to validate prior epidemiologist concerns that arena ventilation and players’ breathing patterns put them at greater COVID-19 risk. And they underscored that in-game protections go only so far when off-ice and community transmission risks aren’t addressed. 

That even pro leagues spending millions can’t effectively contain COVID-19 as the U.S. nears 500,000 pandemic-attributed deaths makes this a questionable time for the major junior Western Hockey League (WHL) to reopen after canceling its 2019-20 season last March.

Yet Washington has authorized its four WHL U.S. Division teams — the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips among them — and the Portland Winterhawks to begin a reduced 24-game schedule March 19 featuring two-plus months of empty-arena, in-state matchups.

The league’s Alberta teams will begin in-province-only travel games with no fans Feb. 26, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba squads will play in a Regina bubble starting March 12. British Columbia’s teams haven’t received government permission to play.

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WHL protocols require that coaches wear masks at all times, and that players do the same except when on ice playing or practicing. Players will self-quarantine before training camp and additionally upon arrival, with weekly COVID-19 testing, daily temperature screening and no overnight road trips. Teams will suspend activity for 14 days if any player or staffer tests positive. No playoffs are planned between WHL divisions.

Oregon hasn’t given the WHL permission to reopen there, so Portland will supposedly attempt an end-around by crossing into Washington for practices in Vancouver and games in the Seattle area.

I’m told not all U.S. Division teams favored playing, which isn’t surprising given risks to players age 16-20 who are paid only nominal “stipends.” There’s no TV revenue at stake, and gate-driven WHL squads will lose a bundle by taking the ice.

But Thunderbirds and Silvertips officials say their motivation is showcasing and developing players for NHL careers. After all, the main reason players choose Canadian-based major junior hockey — in either the WHL, Ontario Hockey League, or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) — is they feel its pro-like extended season gives them a better NHL shot.

“We believe in these kids, and we’re having this season as an area for the kids to develop and the NHL teams will still get the opportunity to watch our players,” Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge said. “Anyone that wants to move on in hockey, we’re giving them the opportunity this year to play 24 games — albeit it’s shortened and there are no fans.”

Silvertips chief operating officer Zoran Rajcic said similarly: “It’s for the development of players. We’ve got a couple of kids that are draft eligible again this year. We’ve got kids graduating from us as 20-year-olds that are looking to sign their first professional contract. And then we’ve got 16- and-17-year-olds that can’t go another eight months before they come back to camp or they’ll have been away from hockey for 18 or 19 months.”

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And the Silvertips will ask players to go a step beyond even NHL counterparts by living in a season-long “bubble” — most likely in currently empty dormitories at Everett Community College.

Typically, players live with host billet families.

“When our kids go home to a family, it makes it worse,” Rajcic said. “They’re meeting with a family or four, five or six other people.”

So they’ll remain within dorms except when shuttled to arenas. Rajcic envisions players leaving dorms at 8:30 a.m. and staying sequestered in the arena until about 4:30 p.m. “especially the first couple of weeks when we get to practice and have our usual training-camp experience.

“And then we head back to the dormitories all together. And they’re in their dormitories. They don’t get to leave. They don’t get to go to the mall. Their food will be delivered either to the arena or to the dormitories.”

Rajcic knows it could become monotonous but expects sacrifices.

“These are virtually high school students … and they’re not with their parents, they’re away from home,” he said. “So if we’re going to try to execute this for their development, this is what they’re going to have to do.”

No other U.S. Division teams have dorm plans, though the WHL’s Saskatchewan “bubble” play will feature similar housing. The Thunderbirds will meet with players and insist — like the NHL — that they remain within billet homes unless absolutely necessary.

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“We have strict guidelines here for the players, and I know they’re hungry and eager to get going,” La Forge said. “So I know they’re going to be really diligent when it comes to following those guidelines.”

We’ll see how effective one “bubble” team is when playing others mingling daily with non-quarantined people.

The QMJHL opened last September and was rocked with infections, postponements and a December shutdown. Play resumed this month in three of four Maritime provinces and four protected Quebec-based “bubble” environments, but one halted after five players and staffers from one team tested positive.

There’s been pressure for the WHL to open, especially with players fleeing shuttered major junior teams to play in the United States Hockey League (USHL) — a U.S.-based junior circuit considered a pipeline to the NCAA and increasingly the NHL.

The USHL has played since November through its own outbreaks and postponements. It had already gained prestige as a junior-age destination for players contemplating college careers — unlike major juniors whose “stipends” cost them a season of NCAA eligibility for every game played.

So whether maintaining their NHL pipeline status is the big motivator, or it’s really all about player exposure and development — or maybe both — the local WHL squads are about to contribute to a volatile hockey mix.

And hopefully they get fewer things wrong about COVID-19 than other leagues before them.