Hockey night in Prince George is set to return in the new year.
The Western Hockey League (WHL) announced today (Oct. 14) it'll be launching its upcoming campaign on Jan. 8, 2021 with teams only playing in their respective divisions during regular-season play with COVID-19 still in the mix.
For the Prince George Cougars, this means their rivalries will only get hotter in facing the Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets, Vancouver Giants and Victoria Royals.
.@PGCougars are set to only play within its 5-team B.C. Division cohort for the 2020-21 regular season, which was agreed for the league's 4 main regions, meaning they'll only face Kamloops, Kelowna, Vancouver & Victoria before any form of postseason | #CityOfPG— Kyle Balzer (@KyleBalzer) October 14, 2020
“In light of the extreme difficulties, complications, hardships, adversity, roadblocks and challenges that we were facing, I’m beyond relieved that we can now officially plan on having a season and making sure for our players’ development and for the good of everybody that we can proceed in some way this season," Cougars' Vice-President of Business Andy Beesley said in an interview with PrinceGeorgeMatters.
“While it’s certainly not ideal, we think it’s kind of cool in some ways and will certainly be different and create some different challenges not only for our players but also for our coaching staffing too to try and out-coach each other," Beesley replied in recalling a conversation he had with Cats' Head Coach and General Manager Mark Lamb about the possibility of playing the same teams.
"The experience is going to be unique for them and create some fantastic rivalries, which everybody loves.”
An official schedule is still being determined by league officials, but players will report to their clubs for training camp after the Christmas break.
Cougars' players are tentatively scheduled to travel to Prince George on Boxing Day (Dec. 26), Beesley says, followed by an abbreviated training camp and possibly take part in a few exhibition games before the Jan. 8 start.
A full COVID-19 return-to-play plan is still being determined by the WHL in coordination with its jurisdictions’ health authorities and no decision has been made yet on if fans of any capacity will be allowed to watch games.
"A final determination has not yet been made as to whether spectators will be permitted to attend WHL games as this will be subject to the approval of the Health Authorities in each jurisdiction," the WHL says in its update today (Oct. 14) | #CityOfPG— Kyle Balzer (@KyleBalzer) October 14, 2020
The City of Prince George also decided to reopen the CN Centre for ice use, as well as its walking program, during an Oct. 5 council meeting, which Beesley explains would have happened regardless.
“We’ve literally had daily conversations with [the city] throughout this entire process and we were assured all along that once the Cougars were able to officially announce a season, they would work with us and move heaven and Earth to make sure that we had our own home barn to play in," he said.
"We’ve been happy to support them in their struggles too, in realizing it’s not easy for them either to open these facilities.”
The Cougars signed a six-year renewal in June 2019, retroactive to July 31, 2018, to keep playing in the now 25-year-old arena through until the 2024-25 season.
The WHL also appointed Dr. Dhiren Naidu as its chief medical advisor with the COVID-19 pandemic still in effect.
"Dr. Naidu, an associate professor at the University of Alberta and head team physician for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and CFL’s Edmonton football team, served as the NHL medical director for the NHL hub, which just concluded in Edmonton," a release states.
"Dr. Naidu will be assisting the WHL with the implementation of its comprehensive health and safety protocol."
Initially, the WHL had hoped to start the 2020-21 season on Oct. 2, but that got pushed to Dec. 2 before today’s official announcement.
The league continuously said it had planned on a full 68-game season, but its latest update indicates likely a shorter season with teams playing in cohorts.
- with files from Brendan Kergin, Castanet