CALGARY — The Western Hockey League says it has approval from the Saskatchewan government to play a 24-game East Division season in a hub in Regina starting next month.
Friday's announcement means three of the WHL's four divisions are now cleared to start play during the COVID-19 pandemic, with only the B.C. Division lacking permission.
Seven teams in Manitoba and Saskatchewan — the Moose Jaw Warriors, Prince Albert Raiders, Regina Pats, Saskatoon Blades, Swift Current Broncos, Brandon Wheat Kings, and Winnipeg Ice — will open play at the Brandt Centre in Regina on March 12.
Each team will play a 24-game season and no fans will be in attendance.
Players and staff will begin self-quarantining on Feb. 20 and will report to Regina on Feb. 27 for an additional quarantine period and testing. They must have a second negative COVID-19 test to engage in any team activity.
The WHL says it will have a weekly testing strategy during the season. If a club has one or more players or staff test positive, the club must suspend activities for a minimum of 14 days.
"The WHL appreciates the co-operation we have received from both the governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba as we work towards a safe return to play in the East Division," WHL commissioner Ron Robison said in a release.
"With our extensive protocols and the necessary approvals now in place, we are looking forward to play getting underway in Regina and allowing our players to continue their development at the highest level in the Canadian system."
The WHL's Central Division, featuring five Alberta teams, is slated to begin play on Feb, 26, while the U.S. Division gets going on March 19.
The WHL says it completed its first phase of return-to-play protocols with no positive COVID-19 test results among the 245 tests administered in the Central Division — including the Edmonton Oil Kings, Lethbridge Hurricanes, Medicine Hat Tigers and Red Deer Rebels — between Feb. and Feb. 12.
The league said in a release that all members of each team delegation were tested once upon arrival and a second time after a mandatory quarantine period in the club centre using private PCR testing. The teams are now in a position to start on-ice practices.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is playing in hubs in Quebec and in team arenas in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, but its three New Brunswick teams remain sidelined.
The Ontario Hockey League has yet to announce plans for a season.