WICHITA, Kan. – After months of careful deliberation, teams and fans across the ECHL received some clarity on Friday as it relates to the 2020-21 season.
As part of the ECHL’s Return to Play strategy, 13 teams, including the Wichita Thunder, will open play a 72-game season beginning on December 11. The other 12 teams will play a 62-game schedule, as jurisdictional approval allows, beginning January 15, 2021. Due to COVID-19 regulations, the Atlanta Gladiators have opted out for the upcoming season but will resume play in 2021-22.
Wichita Thunder General Manager Joel Lomurno told The Sin Bin the league and PHPA arrived at a consensus within the last month:
“It was tough finding a date that worked for everybody and as restrictions were tightened or eased in cities, we arrived at the idea that there were teams that were ready to play and teams that aren’t sure when they could play,” Lomurno said. “Through numerous polls, votes, and surveys, we arrived at the idea that teams who want to play start in December and then we give other teams a chance to play in January. We proposed and voted on the format, took it to the PHPA, and here we are.”
It still remains unclear if the remaining 12 teams will resume play on January 15, 2021, especially if the United States/Canadian border remains closed.
With the start of the season just 63 days away, there is a lot of work to do.
Work is underway on constructing a schedule for the first five weeks (10 games) of the season, which the league expects to release within the next two weeks. Thereafter, a schedule for post-January 15 could be released in mid-December. Lomurno says that for the teams who will start play on December 11, an entire offseason of work will need to be done in roughly 60 days.
“We’re looking at bringing staff back, figure out how and when to bring players down, set up apartments, make dasher boards and ice logos, put the ice in, make videos…start to finish.”
Also on Lomurno’s to-do list is to meet with Intrust Bank Arena officials to discuss protocols for the coming season.
“It is going to be a completely different thing that no one has ever seen in terms of minor league hockey,” Lomurno said of the protocols.
Currently, Sedgwick County has banned gatherings of more than 2,000 people, but there is language in the order that says the “Local Health Officer may grant an exception to the 2,000 person attendance limit pursuant to his approval of a written plan from the venue.” The Thunder and Intrust Bank Arena each submitted plans to the county for revised seating capacity, and they were approved. Lomurno says the Thunder plans to operate with a capacity of 4,600 “spread out”.
Work is also ramping up when it comes to recruiting and finalizing a training camp roster.
Included in the league’s announcement Friday, was that league standings would be based on winning percentage, due to the imbalance in games. With the Thunder starting early, head coach Bruce Ramsay sees the opening ten games not as an extended training camp, but, as a golden opportunity to build momentum early.
“Our training camp is going to be our training camp,” Ramsay said. “Those games we’re playing are going to be crucial and we want to get off to a good start and build momentum as the season goes on. In reality, we’re treating those as vital hockey games to put us in a great position towards the end of the year,” Ramsay said.
As with other teams, there will be an enhanced recruiting push to land players who might be looking to come back state-side or are currently looking for work, as in the case with the Atlanta Gladiators. Ramsay said the extra games could be seen as a bargaining chip.
“One way is we’re going to play a longer season which means players who are playing early will get extra checks and with such a long break, I’m sure they will use it,” Ramsay said. “Players are biting at the bit to play hockey. I’m sure there are a number of players who are ready to go, so we’re actively recruiting as we speak. We have a roster ready to go, but there are so many intangibles out there. We have to see what the situation will be with the AHL and the players that are likely to be sent down.”
Both Ramsay and Lomurno said they would be in contact with Edmonton leadership to formulate a game plan in the coming days.
The one word for Thunder fans to embrace as the season approaches is “patience”.
“Bottom line is we’re going to play hockey,” Lomurno said. “We’re not going to do all the things we’ve always done or need to do. We’re going to have to find new ways to do things. That’s more than likely going to be a process that does not change for the entire season.”
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