The ECHL announced its return to play plans for the 2020-21 season, with eight teams voluntarily opting out of the season.
All six teams in the league’s North Division — the Adirondack Thunder, Brampton Beast, Maine Mariners, Newfoundland Growlers, Reading Royals and Worcester Railers — as well as the Atlanta Gladiators and Norfolk Admirals, will suspend operations for the 2020-21 season but are expected to return in 2021-22.
Under the terms of the CBA between the ECHL and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, all players on those eight teams will immediately become free agents.
“As we continue to navigate the continually changing regulations across North America, we recognize the difficult nature of this decision,” said ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin in a statement. “While some of our teams’ host cities have allowed upcoming plans to include fans inside arenas, we unfortunately do not see the same path for these highly-affected areas in the Northeast.”
The ECHL’s 2020-21 season will be played under a split-season format. The first half will feature 13 teams — the Allen Americans, Florida Everblades, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Indy Fuel, Jacksonville Icemen, Kansas City Mavericks, Orlando Solar Bears, Rapid City Rush, South Carolina Stingrays, Tulsa Oilers, Utah Grizzlies, Wheeling Nailers and Wichita Thunder — competing in a 72-game season beginning on Dec. 11.
The remaining five teams — the Cincinnati Cyclones, Fort Wayne Komets, Idaho Steelheads, Kalamazoo Wings and Toledo Walleye — will compete in a 62-game season beginning Jan. 15, pending approval from local jurisdictions.
The regular season will conclude on June 6, followed by a post-season under a yet-to-be-announced format. Due to the split-season format, standing positions will be determined by winning percentage.
“The ECHL is excited to be able to confirm the beginning of the 2020-21 Season by working with our local health officials and the PHPA to develop protocols for the safe return of our players, fans and employees,” Crelin said. “The ECHL is getting back to hockey, as we all work together to bring live entertainment back to our communities.”
The ECHL was the first professional men’s hockey league in North American to cancel its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic back on March 14, just two days after the NHL suspended play. Players in the ECHL earn an average salary of just $600 a week, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, meaning a disruption of play impacts them more than it would in a higher-tier league.
“We don’t play in the ECHL for the money, we play because we’re hockey players and that’s what we want to be doing. So that’s the most disappointing thing is not being able to play,” Maine Mariners forward Terrence Wallin forward told Sportsnet’s Eric Engels shortly after the season was cancelled. “But I think any guy on an ECHL contract would be lying if they didn’t say they’re a little unsettled with what the next month or two holds. They want us to all have summer jobs, but who’s hiring during this pandemic? It’s going to cause some trouble for guys, and losing out on a couple grand is a pretty big deal. It hurts.
“Us guys in this league, we really value our money. Every dollar matters to us, and to have it cut short is really upsetting.”
The ECHL did not say Wednesday whether fans would be permitted in any of its arenas during the upcoming season.