WICHITA, Kan. – As the nation continues to reopen from a seven-week slumber at the hands of the Coronavirus, the four major sports leagues are treading lightly on how to reopen their leagues with the hope of finishing the 2019-20 season.
As an eager sports viewership waits for that to happen, work is already being done for next season at the minor league level. Wichita Thunder General Manager Joel Lomurno says preparations for next season are continuing to move forward.
“We are building everything for October 15,” Lomurno says. “Until you hear otherwise, everything is good for October 15. There’s no point in building for a December or January start. You want to grab the best players you can right now. We’re gearing up for an October 16 start at INTRUST Bank Arena against the Tulsa Oilers.”
But that plan, like so many others in the last several months, could be up in the air.
Friday night, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association came to an agreement on a 24-team playoff system that could begin as early as July, but there are significant hurdles in seeing such a timetable come to fruition; such as where to play, testing for athletes, travel across the US/Canada border without a mandatory 14-day quarantine (the border remains closed to non-essential travel into at least June), when training will be allowed to start, and pay.
The ECHL, including the Thunder, are watching closely to see how this plays out. Should the NHL return to action in July, hold a play-in round plus play a full four-round, seven-game playoff, what impact could that have on whether the ECHL starts the 2020-21 season on time in October?
“Right now, we have a schedule for October through April, same as every year,” Lomurno said. “We’ll wait and see what the NHL does. But, if the NHL plays this summer into September, they’re obviously not going to start in October, do they move back to November or even December? I don’t know if we’re (ECHL) necessarily going to do exactly what the NHL does, but I think the NHL model is something we’re looking into seeing what they do and how they do it.”
Lomurno says roughly 30 percent of ECHL rosters are comprised of NHL and AHL contracted players. He says several questions exist about what could happen if the ECHL starts on time, while the American and National Hockey Leagues sit idle for a later 2020 start.
“What happens to the players you’re supposed to get? Do they come early? Who pays them? Or do you start on time with everyone else?”
One thing fans can be assured of is that the league has no intention of holding games without fans in the stands, because teams rely on fans, tickets, concessions, and sponsors to generate revenue. The Coronavirus situation takes away the prospect, for now, of having jam-packed buildings, but Lomurno says the Thunder could survive on having a finite number of fans.
“You have to make your ticket a more valuable, one-of-a-kind deal,” Lomurno said. “Go toward your paid fan, build your base, and not jack up ticket prices, you can survive because you can maximize your weekend games, which is where you do the best. Maybe you find some new diehard fans out of this.”
Discussions are ongoing between the Thunder, INTRUST Bank Arena, health, and elected officials to determine a specific number of people that can be in the arena while observing the social distancing protocol laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Thunder are scheduled to open their 29th season, seventh in the ECHL, on Friday, October 16 against the Tulsa Oilers.
You can keep up with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder during the extended offseason by following us on Twitter! Follow Matthew Harding and Matthew Will on Twitter @SinBinThunder and @SinBinNews for the latest news on the AHL, ECHL, and SPHL.