When an NBA player tested positive for the COVID-19 virus on Wednesday, it became clear the Western Hockey League regular season was in jeopardy, Kelowna Rockets owner Bruce Hamilton said Thursday.
The WHL — and its partner leagues in Ontario and Quebec — announced they were suspending their regular seasons in hopes of containing the virus’s spread.
“After an NBA player contracted it, then our guys could become part of this,” Hamilton said after a 12-hour day of meetings and conference calls. “I think that’s what really concerned the NHL, and we would follow exactly what they were going to do, likely.”
The three groups—together forming the Canadian Hockey League—did consider playing without fans in empty arenas, Hamilton said.
But, again, because an athlete has the virus, it changed the decision-making process.
“That spelled the end of that, probably,” Hamilton said. “Once the players have it amongst themselves, then we’ve got a bigger problem—from our perspective, not from the big perspective (of public health).”
The WHL’s move also seemed like a foregone conclusion once the NHL made its decision early on Thursday.
The WHL board of governors, of which Hamilton is chairman, will speak again on Tuesday to formulate a broader plan of attack. The season was to end March 22, and Hamilton said he hopes there’s a clearer picture of what the virus is doing by then.
“The plan is to pause, not cancel, not do anything other than that and see if the wave slows down a little bit for everybody,” he said. “If we end up with a number of players with it, then it’s a bigger concern. We’ve got a couple of weeks to play with here, because we’ve got two weeks left in our season, really, and then we can make plans from there.”
Hamilton said the NHL is likely to follow the same course. Having spring break start Monday is also a blessing for the WHL since it keeps the younger players out of those mass gatherings everyone is worried about it.
At the same time, Hamilton also said decisions will ultimately come down to local health authorities.
After all, he said, the health of players, staff and fans are paramount.
Rockets head coach Kris Mallette said the players understand the decision, and everyone within the franchise is united for the greater good.
But, at the same time, he said they were hoping for some kind of last-minute reprieve.
“Everybody was holding out hope,” Mallette said. “Nobody wanted this to happen.”
The players will remain in Kelowna with their billet families at least through the weekend. Injured players and players from outside Canada will also stay in Kelowna. Until then, Mallette said, the Rockets remain positive about getting back onto the ice at some point. They will meet in groups of six with medical staff to ensure they are staying healthy.
Mallette said there might be an opportunity to keep in shape with small group workouts, but they will not be skating in the short term.
The only silver lining may be health related — and isn’t that ironic. With so many Rockets hurting, extra time to heal is welcome especially if the league resumes in time for playoffs.
“If you’re going to take a positive out of this situation, I guess that’s one,” Mallette said. “The kids want to play, and we want to coach.”
As for those injuries, the Rockets were encouraged to see Trevor Wong and Kyle Topping walking around Prospera Place on Thursday morning.
Both were injured by the same player in Kelowna’s 3-2 loss on Wednesday to the Victoria Royals. Topping was caught when an awkward pass didn’t get to him quickly enough and he had to absorb a hit from Victoria’s Jacob Herauf in the first period.
Late in the game, Herauf caught Wong with a devastating hit. The Rockets forward saw Herauf too late, tried to avoid him, but instead they collided knee-on-knee. Wong was splayed on the ice for nearly five minutes.
Mallette said both were “up and around and in good spirits” on Thursday. But they will need time to recover.
WHL loses trusted ally
Ken King, a part owner of the Calgary Flames and former newspaper executive, died on Thursday after a lengthy illness.
He was 68.
Hamilton said he and King were “dear” friends and King acted as a mentor to the Rockets’ owner.
“We’ve had a long day, but losing a guy like him … he was a special, special friend of mine,” Hamilton said. “I can say this, he was a tremendous supporter of me as chairman of the board and a I lost a good friend today. This guy was the greatest supporter of the Western Hockey League.
“I lost a dear, dear friend.”
Hamilton said he had been in poor health for some time. King’s family has not released a cause of death.