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Three of WHL’s four divisions have the green light for 2020-21 games. Is B.C. coming soon?

League remains committed to 24-game campaign
Cougars-Blazers-Gauthier 2019 home
Prince George Cougars' Taylor Gauthier (#35) looks up from his net to try and find the puck against the Kamloops Blazers at the CN Centre. / Prince George Cougars/James Doyle Photography

The Western Hockey League’s (WHL) B.C. Division, which includes the Prince George Cougars, is the last one standing.

On Friday (Feb. 12), the league was given the all-clear from the Saskatchewan and Manitoba governments on a Regina hub-city format for its East Division, which will house seven teams following COVID-19 safety protocols for a 24-game season per club.

All games will be played at the Brandt Centre, fans will not be allowed to attend, and players are set to begin quarantine on Feb. 20 before arriving at the Pats home arena on Feb. 27 for testing and a second isolation period.

This now means three of the WHL’s four divisions will play hockey in the near future:

  • Central Division - Feb. 26, 2021
    • Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer
  • East Division - March 12, 2021
    • Brandon, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Regina, Saskatoon, Swift Current, Winnipeg
  • U.S. Division - March 18, 2021
    • Everett, Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Tri-City

As of this publication (Feb. 13), B.C.’s return-to-play plan has not yet been given the go-ahead from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to host games as a result of current COVID-19 public health orders in place until further notice.

However, when the announcement was made on Feb. 5, she said the hope is to ease some restrictions that would allow competitive sports, but only if the pandemic’s situation in the province improved.

In early February, the WHL had proposed a double-bubble format in which Kamloops and Kelowna would co-host the games.

Prince George, as part of the plan, would play in Kamloops against the Blazers and Vancouver.

Henry said she would be "continually reviewing" whether data supports ending restrictions early, or extending them into March, and beyond.

"We all want to get to the days where these orders can be lifted," she said on Feb. 5

"As we look toward the end of this month, these data will tell us if more action is required, or if we can start to ease the restrictions we have in place through our shared efforts."

Yesterday, Henry did not mention the WHL in her COVID-19 update.

So while it remains unclear if the B.C. Division has received any feedback about its plan, the Cougars have been excited about the WHL’s 24-game commitment since its announcement on Jan. 8, citing that safety continues to be a top priority for everyone involved when a plan is ultimately approved.

“The main process is getting [the players] in a team environment and what they’re used to. All these players want to do is play hockey,” said Prince George General Manager and Head Coach Mark Lamb.

“You can see on the other side of the border, there’s hockey being played, and we want to do everything really safe. You know it’s a scary world out there right now, but there’s hockey being played and our players are no different. It’s going to be a shortened season, it’s not ideal, but it's the best that we can do under these circumstances.”

Regardless of how the season will look at the end of the day, Lamb believes the pace of play won’t be any different than what fans would see in a normal 68-game schedule.

“I think they’re going to be hungry, they’re going to be excited to be back with their teammates, I think the effort is going to be there for sure and they want to better their careers and move forward. The 24 games is very important, it’s very important for our league; we are going to get back to normal at some point here. It’s going to be small numbers come in, here’s your team and let’s go.”

The Cougars have continued to encourage the public to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines in this time of patience and uncertainty.

- with files from Jess Fedigan, PrinceGeorgeMatters, and Wayne Moore, Castanet