Calgary, AB – WHL Commissioner Ron Robison officially launched the 2016-17 WHL regular season during a media conference call Wednesday afternoon. Beginning this Friday, the WHL enters its 51st season as all 22 WHL member Clubs across Western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest begin their quest to hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL Champions.
“The 2016-17 Western Hockey League season opens this Friday, with 21 games over the opening weekend,” commented WHL Commissioner Ron Robison. “It is fitting that we open our season by paying tribute to one of the greatest players of all time, ‘Mr. Hockey’ Gordie Howe. Gordie was not only a Saskatchewan product but a great ambassador of the WHL as a part owner of the Vancouver Giants.”
Thank You, Mr. Hockey
Opening weekend in the WHL will be punctuated by tributes to ‘Mr. Hockey’ Gordie Howe. First, the Vancouver Giants will pay tribute to Howe on Friday when they host the Everett Silvertips in their new home, the Langley Events Centre, wearing specially-themed jerseys. The Giants will retire Howe’s infamous number nine in a pre-game ceremony as they honour their late co-owner.
On Sunday, the Saskatoon Blades and the City of Saskatoon will celebrate ‘Thank You, Mr. Hockey Day’ as they welcome the visiting Swift Current Broncos to Howe’s hometown. The celebrations will include the unveiling of Gordie Howe Bridge, the interment of Gordie and Coleen Howe’s ashes into the statue erected in Howe’s honour outside of Sasktel Centre, and a special pre-game ceremony hosted by legendary broadcaster Bob Cole.
WHL on Shaw
The WHL on Shaw returns to broadcast both games across Shaw TV’s Western Canadian network. Friday’s contest in Vancouver will kick off with a 30 minute season preview beginning at 7:00 p.m. PDT, while the WHL on Shaw’s coverage of opening weekend continues Sunday in Saskatoon at 2:00 p.m. CST. Shaw TV is entering its 13th season as the official regional cable broadcaster of the WHL.
In addition to Friday and Sunday’s games on the WHL on Shaw, three games hold special significance on the WHL’s opening weekend.
Saturday in Brandon, the Wheat Kings will not only raise their third WHL Championship banner (and first since 1996), but the club will also celebrate the franchise’s 50th season during a special pre-game ceremony.
Also on Saturday, the first hockey game will be played in Rogers Place as the Edmonton Oil Kings are set to welcome the Red Deer Rebels in front of a sell-out crowd of 18,102.
WHL Continuing to Put Players First
WHL Commissioner Ron Robison highlighted the emphasis the League and its 22 member Clubs continue to place on developing players from both a hockey and educational standpoint during Wednesday’s media conference call.
“The reason we are the number-one destination for young prospects is because we not only deliver a world-class development opportunity for our players at the highest level in the system and a fully-guaranteed WHL scholarship that meets the needs of every graduating player, but also because we deliver the best possible environment off the ice for the players to develop into highly-successful people,” commented Robison.
“Our first priority, always, is the WHL Player Experience. Although teams measure their success largely by wins and losses and championships, we look at it a little differently in that we want to make sure that in addition to hockey development at the highest level and a solid education program that we’re delivering on a very positive environment as well.”
This season, the WHL has further enhanced the WHL Players First support services program through a partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association which will bring its Talk Today program to all 22 WHL member Clubs. Talk Today is a proven and important mental health initiative that will help WHL players and team staff identify and address mental health issues.
The WHL Players First support services program also includes a number of additional programs aimed at providing the best player experience possible.
Since 1997, the WHL has been actively involved with organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross to implement a number of educational and support services programs which help to ensure WHL players are provided with a safe environment in which to develop. The WHL was awarded a national citation by the Canadian Red Cross in 2013 for its commitment in this regard and has since further enhanced the WHL Players First support services program. To further enhance the world class environment WHL players develop in, the WHL established a league-wide WHL Security Network during the 2014-15 season. The WHL Security Network includes a Club Liaison Officer assigned to all 22 WHL member Clubs whose duties include coordinating the WHL Police Impact Program presentation and serving as a mentor for players on each WHL Club.
The WHL Players First support services program also boasts a partnership with Respect in Sport, an organization co-founded by Wayne McNeil and Sheldon Kennedy, which provides all WHL management and coaching personnel along with support staff certification on the prevention and awareness of bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination.
In addition, the WHL’s Player Safety Seven Point Plan to reduce head trauma continues to be effective. Instituted in 2011, the WHL’s Player Safety Seven Point Plan took a comprehensive approach to addressing this important matter and included the adoption of new playing rules, more severe suspensions for repeat offenders, the production of an educational video on the risks of concussion, educating players to be more responsible for themselves on the ice, an annual seminar for all WHL Head Coaches and General Managers, new soft cap elbow and shoulder pads and expanded research data and a review of all WHL arena facilities safety standards. In conjunction with CHL Consultant Dr. Michael Czarnota and the CHL Concussion Management Program, the WHL’s Player Safety Seven Point Plan has been effective in each season since its implementation.
WHL Scholarship Program Breaking Records
After awarding a League-record of over 350 WHL Scholarships during its 50th season last year, the WHL is poised to challenge that record again in 2016-17 as more WHL graduates continue to choose to access their fully-guaranteed WHL Scholarship packages.
Every player who plays in the WHL is eligible to receive the WHL Scholarship. For every season a player plays in the WHL, they receive a guaranteed, full-year WHL Scholarship including tuition, textbooks and compulsory fees to a post-secondary institution of their choice. WHL players can also access financial assistance for post-secondary courses while playing in the League prior to accessing their WHL Scholarship. The WHL and Athabasca University have partnered to offer, through online and other distance education vehicles, fully-accredited university courses to any WHL player interested in further pursuing post-secondary studies while playing in the WHL.
The WHL continues to be the leading provider of Hockey Scholarships in Western Canada. Since 1993, the WHL has awarded more than 5,800 Scholarships to graduate players, representing an investment by WHL ownership of more than $21 million.
New Playing Rule & Rule Interpretation for 2016-17
The WHL has clarified the rule regarding pucks off players’ skates which enter the net this season. The clarification states that, unless the puck is in the goal crease, a puck that enters the net off of a player’s skate shall be ruled a goal. This will eliminate the need for a decision by the referee and/or video goal judge as to whether it was a distinct kicking motion or not.
The WHL has also implemented hybrid icing this season which has been successfully introduced at both the National Hockey League (NHL) and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) levels.
Video Replay Systems
The WHL has also added new video replay systems, provided by Hawk-Eye Innovations, in all WHL arenas this season. Hawk-Eye, also the supplier of video replay technology to the NHL and Major League Baseball, will provide WHL Video Goal Judges with improved capabilities for all video review situations.