The North American Hockey League, which includes the Kenai River Brown Bears, said Monday that its season will start Oct. 9.
In a press release, the league said it is committed to playing a full schedule. That schedule will be released by Sept. 1.
Chris Hedlund, general manager for the Brown Bears, said the start of the season is being delayed three or four weeks.
“The delayed start will give us all a better chance to make sure all teams are functional and able to have fans,” Hedlund said.
The 27-team NAHL is the second-best junior hockey league in the United States, behind the United States Hockey League. The NAHL has teams in 16 states with a presence in Alaska, the Midwest, the East Coast, and Texas and a few of its bordering states.
“We have spent a lot of time discussing return dates and are excited to be moving forward at this time,” said Mark Frankenfeld, NAHL commissioner and president, in a released statement. “Our number one priority remains returning to the ice this fall in the safest manner possible for everyone in our hockey community and we believe October 9th is a good date to achieve that goal.
“Between now and the schedule release we will be communicating with the NHL, USA Hockey, and the USHL, to develop the most current return to play guidelines as possible.”
Hedlund said the announcement of the start date is a positive for Brown Bears fans.
“It tells people that the league and the teams want to be on the ice,” he said. “They want to get back into their communities and be on the ice.”
The general manager said there will be many issues that have to be addressed for the Oct. 9 start date to happen, but he said setting that date now gives a precise time frame to address those issues.
Hedlund said the biggest unknown is what track the new coronavirus will take in the United States between now and the start date. In mid-March last season, the NAHL suspended its season due to the virus, leaving the Brown Bears eight games left to play in their 13th season.
The general manager said the first two orders of business for the Brown Bears are figuring out how difficult it will be for the Bears and their opponents to travel into Alaska. The Bears also must figure out how they will operate at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex this season.
Currently, those traveling into Alaska must complete a traveler declaration form and do one of the following:
Arrive with a negative COVID-19 test.
Get a COVID-19 test when arriving in Alaska and self-quarantine until results arrive.
Self-quarantine for 14 days or the duration of stay.
Follow a work plan filed with the state by the employer.
Hedlund also said the Brown Bears will have to find out how the city of Soldotna plans to operate the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex this winter. Teams around the league will have to figure out the same thing with their respective home arenas.
“The league can’t function without fans,” Hedlund said. “Most teams need fans to pay the bills.”
Once he has that information, Hedlund said the Bears can begin contacting sponsors, host families and fans with a better idea of what the season will look like.
The NAHL’s announcement of a start date for the season came on the same day when it was announced 14 members of the Miami Marlins’ traveling party, including 12 players, had tested positive for coronavirus. Three Major League Baseball games were postponed as a result.
Like the NAHL, MLB is traveling to its normal stadiums and playing games there. MLB is playing without fans.
“I think today’s event with the Marlins makes you wonder, ‘Is October going to be too early?’” Hedlund said.
He added, though, that there are positive signs. From July 10 to 12, the Bears teamed with two other NAHL teams to hold a pre-draft camp in Hudson, Wisconsin. Hedlund said there were almost 400 players present.
Parents also could come to the rink and watch, as long as they were masked and socially distanced. There were other protocols in place, like temperature checks for everybody coming into the building.
“So far, we haven’t heard of anybody having problems after that camp,” Hedlund said.
The general manager also added some schools will welcome students back between now and October. The success or failure of that could go a long way in determining how comfortable NAHL arenas are with accepting fans.
Hedlund said there is a lot that could happen with the virus between now and October, so it’s important the league gets a start date out there. Hedlund said a schedule will allow even more planning to take place.
“They’re planting that flag when they’re going to try to start,” Hedlund said. “Now we can have tangible discussions, where before we were just talking about ideas.”