Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Calgary Hitmen, members of the Western Hockey League (WHL), have found a temporary new home on Tsuut’ina Nation.
The Hitmen usually play their home contests at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. The rink is also the home of the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames.
The Hitmen, however, will be playing their home games at the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex at Tsuut’ina.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 22-team WHL, which traditionally commences its regular season in September, has yet to kick off its 2020-21 campaign.
Safety and health regulations have prevented the WHL from starting up. Complicating matters is the travel required and the fact the league has franchises in four western Canadian provinces as well as teams in the states of Washington and Oregon.
The Canada/U.S. border closure and the fact competition between clubs from different provinces is not allowed has meant the WHL has been unable to compete.
While the majority of WHL clubs are still awaiting word on when their season might begin, Alberta Health and provincial officials have given approval for the WHL’s five Alberta-based squads to commence an abbreviated 24-game regular season schedule to start Feb. 26.
But no fans will be allowed into any of the WHL contests.
Because of strict protocols allowing access into NHL arenas this season, Hitmen officials knew they would in all likelihood be forced to relocate their home matches if they did receive approval to play.
That fact was cemented when it was agreed to allow the California-based Stockton Heat, the Flames’ American Hockey League affiliate, to stage its home contests at the Scotiabank Saddledome this season.
This Heat transfer allows Calgary’s top affiliate to play its games in the AHL’s Canadian division, created just for this season.
Mike Moore, the Hitmen vice-president and alternate governor, is thrilled his franchise will be able to utilize the Tsuut’ina Nation rink as its home.
He praised the arena’s sightlines, Jumbotron, dressing rooms and training areas.
“You name it,” Moore said. “It’s just a state-of-the-art facility. This is just a wonderful opportunity to have. We’re lucky to be able to do it.”
The Hitmen opponents during regular season action will be the Edmonton Oil Kings, Red Deer Rebels, Medicine Hat Tigers and Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Like the Hitmen, the Oil Kings need to relocate since they are unable to utilize Rogers Place, also home to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
But the Oil Kings don’t have to move far since they will play out of the Downtown Community Arena, located inside Rogers Place.
In order to limit the number of contacts the Hitmen players have, all those on the club’s roster this season will also be housed at the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino, owned by Tsuut’ina Nation.
Though Moore speaks highly of those families who usually billet Hitmen players, the organization felt it would make more sense to have the team’s players live at the resort about a five-minute drive from the arena.
“We just felt if we could make things better, we could make this happen,” said Moore, adding the team’s players will also be eating the majority of their meals at the resort.
Meanwhile, the WHL has announced that its five American franchises have also received permission to commence a shortened regular season schedule in the league’s U.S. division.
The Oregon-based Portland Winterhawks will be battling against the four Washington-based teams —the Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs, Tri-City Americans and Everett Silvertips.
Moore said all of the other WHL entrants, based in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are awaiting word from their provincial health authorities on when they might be able to commence playing.
Moore added at this point he is not sure what sort of playoff format the WHL might have and whether Alberta teams might be able to compete against American opponents or squads from other provinces.
“It’s such a moving target,” he said. “Everything changes by the day.”
Because of the pandemic, the WHL was unable to complete its 2019-20 season. The league cancelled the remainder of its regular season and its entire playoff schedule last March.
WHL teams traditionally play a 68-game regular season schedule.
Moore is glad the Hitmen will soon be back on the ice, even though they will only play about one-third of the schedule they usually do.
“It’s different,” Moore said. “But at the same time, after 10 months of waiting, we’re all very excited and fortunate we’re going to be able to play.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.