Twenty-six Rebels players, ranging in age from 16 to 21, are living at the Western Park Centrium, co-host of the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship with Edmonton. The Rebels’ home rink has undergone a retrofit to allow the 26 players and some staff to stay in suites located throughout the facility for the duration of the WHL’s season.
Merrick Sutter, Senior Vice-President of the Rebels, says a number of options were discussed on how best to navigate the COVID-19 WHL season, but he and his staff thought having the players live at the rink was best from a health and safety perspective, not only for the players and staff but for their neighbours in the community.
“It’s been good. In terms of meeting the objectives of what we tried to do... which was to protect our community, make sure we’re adhering to the protocols and putting everyone in the safest position possible, with our billets and our players and our staff, we’ve succeeded in those areas,” says Sutter. “Regardless of what the situation was going to be – whether they lived in a hotel or with billets – the protocols were going to be what they were. Those were always going to be challenging in terms of having very limited to no contact with people outside of your team.”
In a normal year, countless Canadian towns and cities that are home to junior hockey clubs, would rely on billets (or host families) to house teenaged hockey players. The athletes normally live with a billet family, go to a local school and head to the rink for practices and games.
This year, Rebels players are spending 24/7 at the Centrium. Suites have been retrofitted into makeshift hotel rooms, with beds, televisions, video game consoles, and refrigerators. The suites also overlook the Centrium’s ice surface. Down on the main concourse, team staff have brought in ping pong tables and basketball hoops for the players to enjoy. All meals are catered on site as well.
Many junior hockey players are still in school but, this year, athletes are completing their education at the rink. One of the lounges at the Centrium – which is a large facility located on a fair grounds and typically hosts exhibitions throughout the season – is the education centre for players still studying, whether they’re in high school or taking college classes.
Players’ days look similar to what they’ve been in the past but without all of the travel in between school, home and rink.
“The players come down for breakfast between 8:30 and 9:15 or 9:30, depending whether they’re in school or not. The school kids usually report to the school room at 9 am and we have our education advisor there should they require any assistance,” says Sutter. “The guys who aren’t in school will usually do a workout or stretch, something off ice. They all collectively break for lunch around noon. Then we skate in and around that 2 o’clock mark until 3:30 or 3:45, sometimes earlier with special teams or goaltenders. Earlier in the week, we’re usually more skills based where our skills instructors are out there and they’re doing more individual-based stuff. Usually on Wednesday-Thursday, they’ll do more of a regular practice flow with drills and systems and special teams.”
Like all sports organizations, the WHL has had to shift its scheduling. Alberta-based teams are forming a division and playing one another and no games are taking place with clubs in other Canadian provinces or the United States. So the Rebels face off against only the Medicine Hat Tigers, Edmonton Oil Kings, Calgary Hitmen and Lethbridge Hurricanes on weekends, generally in a back-to-back home-and-home scenario.
“It’s been a great experience so far,” says Kyle Masters, a 17-year-old Rebels defenceman. “We’ve been here for over a month now and everyone is just excited that we get to play hockey. That was the main goal for everyone just to get back playing the thing that we love to do. Obviously, being around the guys is something that we missed through this extended break. That was definitely a positive and we have all had a lot of fun.”
Masters says he and his teammates have had countless ping pong tournaments during their spare time. In fact, the Rebels had to bring in a second ping pong table for the boys as the first was being occupied non-stop.
Sutter says the time together has been invaluable for building team culture, but he and his staff were wanting to ensure they weren’t controlling the players’ time too much. With that in mind, the days include a lot of free time.
“That can always be a good and a bad thing,” he says. “Spending too much time together is not always a good thing. We’ve tried to periodically have things that we’re doing as a team but really giving them the freedom in the evenings to do what they want. There’s places to play ping pong, basketball, they’ve got their own suites where they can play video games, there’s rooms to watch movies or TV. It’s really allowing them to still live a natural social life with their teammates. They’re not being able to see family, girlfriends and that kind of stuff is probably the biggest challenge for a lot of them. But that would be the situation regardless of whether they stayed here or not. That’s the league protocol.”
The Rebels have played 10 of their 24 games so far. The WHL has not yet made an announcement on playoffs, with the league’s other teams forming different divisions (clubs in Saskatchewan, in British Columbia and the U.S.-based teams are also only playing teams within their own province). There’s a chance the regular season is all that teams will get in 2020/21.
With no fans, media or scouts in the rink, the Rebels are just focusing on improvement.
“(Head coach) Brent Sutter has stressed from Day 1, just continue to get better 1 per cent every day,” says Masters. “We know how long we’re here. There likely won’t be playoffs, sadly, due to the situation we’re in. Just try and improve our game individually and as a team we’ll be going into the right direction going into next year.”