By Ryan McCracken
Alta Newspaper Group
The Medicine Hat Tigers are finally coming back to town.
The Western Hockey League announced Thursday afternoon it has been granted approval from Alberta Health and the provincial government to return to play – allowing the Alberta-based Central Division to commence its 24-game regular season without spectators on Feb. 26.
“We’ve waited for a long time,” said Tigers head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins in a call with the News. “It’s really great. The organization and Darrell (Maser, owner/president) and those guys have been really great for us. I think it’s a big step for the league. We’re lucky our division is able to get going, hopefully the other divisions will as well.”
The announcement only addressed the five WHL clubs contained within the borders of Alberta – the Tigers, Lethbridge Hurricanes, Calgary Hitmen, Red Deer Rebels and Edmonton Oil Kings – and stressed that the Central’s regular season will take place entirely within the province. Desjardins says he’s not aware of any discussion around moving other teams into the province for a hub city or bubble play.
The Central Division schedule itself has yet to be released, however it will feature a home-and-home set against a different opponent each weekend, with mandated five-day breaks in between and a bye for one team each week.
Desjardins added training and practices will feature a staggered structure to reduce the number of people in a given space at one time, while everyone from players and staff to billet families will face enhanced screening measures such as regular temperature checks and symptom monitoring. Players must also wear masks at all times except when participating on ice in games or practices, while coaches must wear masks at all times, including while conducting practice or coaching from behind the bench.
“The league has done a really good job with the protocols,” said Desjardins. “It’s really tight. Basically, it’s to the rink and to the billet’s house. We’ve put in procedures with the billets as well – we’re trying to eliminate any outside contact as much as possible. The guys know that if we don’t follow protocol then we’ll be shut down, so we’ll have good buy-in from the players.”
Testing will also play an important role throughout the season, with the league implementing a weekly private testing strategy to help limit the spread of COVID. WHL clubs will provide the testing for players and staff through DynaLIFE Medical Labs – which was utilized in Edmonton for the Stanley Cup playoffs and IIHF World Junior Championship. In the event that one or more players or staff members test positive, the affected team will be forced to suspend club activities for a minimum of 14 days.
Players and staff will begin self-quarantining on Saturday. Players can then report to teams on Feb. 6 before taking part in another quarantine, with on-ice training to begin no earlier than Feb. 12. All players will be tested upon arrival, then again before engaging in any team activity.
“Once they come here, they’ll test and then quarantine to make sure we’re not bringing anything into the team,” said Desjardins. “Then, once we’re sure of that, we’ll get together as a group.”