After weeks of rumours, the WHL announced on Friday morning that an agreement had been reached with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health that will allow the five WHL teams in the province -- the Warriors, Prince Albert Raiders, Regina Pats, Saskatoon Blades, Swift Current Broncos -- to be joined by the Winnipeg Ice and Brandon Wheat Kings out of Manitoba for a 24-game schedule based out of a bubble format in Regina.
“It’s a great day for the Western Hockey League and the teams in the East Division and most importantly it’s an exciting day for our players,” said Warriors general manager Alan Millar on a media Zoom call shortly after the announcement. “It’s been a long 10-plus months for our players and I know that with the Zoom call we had with our players at noon today to update them, there were a lot of smiles and a lot of excitement.”
The schedule will begin on Mar. 12, with the slate of games to be determined. All games will take place in the Brandt Centre in Regina, with teams practicing at the Co-Operator’s Centre adjacent to the arena and teams being housed in the University of Regina and Luther College dormitories.
The league said in a press release it “has developed an extensive set of protocols and believe the protective Hub environment will provide a high standard of safety, for not only players and staff, but the Regina community at large”.
Players and staff will begin self-quarantining on Saturday, Feb. 20 and will report to the WHL hub on Feb. 27, where they will undergo COVID-19 testing followed by an additional quarantine period. Players and staff will then undergo a second COVID test before engaging in team activities.
Teams will be monitored and screened on a daily basis, as well as monitored through a similar system used by Team Canada at the World Juniors last month in Edmonton.
As expected, no fans will be allowed in the WHL facilities, but a brand-new live-streaming service will be launched in time for the first games.
There will be a lot of precautions and things will be wildly different, but that’s all fine and well in Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary’s eyes if it means players get back on the ice.
“From the coach’s perspective, I think the biggest thing is the excitement of being able to do what we do,” O’Leary said. “We’re going to be back on the ice, and from a coach’s side, we want to help the players in terms of developing, I think they’re getting sick and tired of being in the gym and the practice atmosphere, so we just want to get back to competing.”
The Warriors have stayed in contact with their players throughout the last 11 months, something O’Leary felt was important in building relationships and setting goals, but that only goes so far when it comes to working with a hockey team.
“At some point you have to get back to it, and we’re really excited for the players and the unique opportunity to be surrounded by hockey for 60 days,” he said.”I feel a little bit like a kid heading away to a weekend tournament, it just happens to be a whole bunch of weekends.”
World Junior bubble experience will be of help
Millar’s experience with the aforementioned bubble is something that could help the Warriors when it comes to dealing with the unique situation of living in dorms and the constant monitoring over the span of two months.
“I think what’s going to be really important is we have to get creative as a staff in terms of what we do with the players in terms of downtime and the other teams in getting details of what our areas will look like, what the common areas will look like, where we’re set up at the rink, do we bring ping pong tables, things like that,” Millar said.
“We’re going to want to be creative to keep our players busy, and the world junior experience, we had our ups and downs and spent more time in isolation than we would have liked to, but we’re looking to avoid that by going into the hub in Regina.”
Having spent so much time at home already -- with the majority of the team having not played a meaningful game in nearly a year -- Millar expects things will move smoothly.
“You never want to be stuck at home when you’re an elite athlete,” he said. “You want to be with your teammates, you want to be on the ice and you want to be competing. We want to keep them busy, the schedule will break down so you’re playing two games every three days, we’re going to get on the ice to practice and be with our players.
“It’s something I think everyone will be excited about and the time will fly by, to be honest.”
How will players adapt to hub model and the quality of hockey?
When it comes to players hitting the ice at full speed and finding their game, O’Leary expects it might take some time, but things should come along at a decent pace.
“I think they’ll adapt real quick,” he said. “I think that’s true in any circumstance, but with teenage kids, we’ve seen many times before they can adapt to positions they’re put in and the excitement is times-10 for them right now, being away from competing for so long. There’s going to be a whole lot of excitement and enthusiasm and that’s going to take them a long ways.”
Just don’t expect playoff-level hockey the same weekend as opening day -- especially after only a week of actual full-team practice before hitting the ice.
“I’m not anticipating the hockey being real great and crisp right off the start, but I look forward as a coach to help bring that along and make sure that day five looks a lot different than day 50,” O’Leary said. “But from a players standpoint, I expect they’ll handle this just fine and they’ll be a bunch of kids in a candy shop once they get in there and are surrounded by hockey.”
Europeans: Lang staying in Czech Republic, Rysavy a question mark
The Warriors answered one question mark with regards to players crossing the Canadian border to join the team earlier this week when they traded Colorado Springs native Brock Gould to the Portland Winterhawks.
As for their two European players, Martin Lang, 19, will remain in the Elite League back home in the Czech Republic, while 2020 Draft pick Martin Rysavy remains a question mark.
“(Lang) is coming off a really good World Junior championship and is playing at the pro level in the Czech Elite league and we just felt it was the best for him to stay there,” Millar explained. “We’ll certainly keep open dialogue with Martin and his camp in terms of next season, obviously with him being a 20-year-old and a good player, we’d have to consider if he’s interested and if it would take up two spots, which is something (assistant general manager) Jason (Ripplinger), myself and the coaching staff will deal with in the off-season.”
Rysavy, meanwhile, could end up over here if a national interest exemption is granted by the Canadian government.
“We’re not sure how that’s going to work out, whether it’ll be possible or not, but we are going through that process and expect to have more info on Rysavy’s status before we head over into the hub on the 27th,” Millar said.
Playing games will be important for player development and scouting
As has been pointed out many times through the off-season and especially when the WHL officially announced that games would be happening no matter what, player development -- and especially getting eyes on the players -- will be a key part of the 24-game campaign.
“We talk about developing players and that can be a young player or an older player, but the guys who are draft eligible this year, that was really important for them to be getting the viewings and the best opportunity to get to the next level,” O’Leary said.
“Then the 20-year-olds who are looking to move on, whether it’s pro contracts or getting into good schools, I know the schools in the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) have been calling and getting a little bit of background on some of our players, so that’ll be a great opportunity for them, too.”
While there might not be a ton of games to show off skills, something is better than nothing. And there will be that much more onus on the players to put something together quickly.
“That’ll add to some of the excitement, it’s a 24-game showcase, it’s not a marathon, it’s a sprint and there’s a lot on the line for everybody,” O’Leary said. “I think that makes for exciting hockey and we’re looking forward to it.”
Trades are unlikely this season
Throughout his tenure with the Warriors, Millar hasn’t been afraid to swing a trade if it appears it will benefit the team in any fashion. But with such a short schedule and so few games, he expects there will be little activity on the team-to-team transaction front.
“We have some flexibility leading up to the hub when it comes to player moves, but for the most part we’ve made our moves to accommodate some players, particularly with their opportunity to play,” Millar said, referring to the Gould deal as well as defenceman Cayde Augustine being sent to Swift Current and forward Kyle Crosbie being picked up by Prince Albert.
The key for the current group will be to build a culture of winning after going through a tough campaign in 2019-20.
“The way we’re looking at the season, first of all we want to be competitive, we’re a transitional team as we know, last year was a difficult season and culturally it’s important that we improve and win more games than we lose in this short season to build for the future,” Millar said. “I think we feel real confident in our team a year from now and the steps our team can take. This will be important in building that, and we feel our young group of players is strong and the development part is very important.
“So I don’t anticipate a lot of moves, there is no trade deadline, you won’t have your traditional buyers and sellers so I don’t anticipate very many moves.”
Building winning habits will be important
As O’Leary mentioned earlier, the Warriors have been in contact with each other throughout the long off-season. That evolved into weekly Zoom calls with the whole team, with the goal of creating a dressing room atmosphere without the dressing room, something the head coach felt was successful.
“We were able to talk a lot about our values of what we expect this year,” O’Leary said. “Alan mentioned our culture in terms of winning more than losing and that comes down to the habits that we’re expecting. The messaging there was whenever we do get back playing, and especially in a hub situation, that those circumstances don’t change those responsibilities.”
Zoom is still Zoom, though, and not a substitute for real life.
“The communication part has been easy to do with the calls, but I think moving forward here it’ll be good to work in person and I’m looking forward to it,” O’Leary said.