WHL commissioner Ron Robison.

Vaccination against COVID-19 has been a tough sell for many athletes, including Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins, which makes news like the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons becoming the first team in that league to reach a 100 percent vaccination rate the exception rather than the norm. However, that’s not the case for high-level sports everywhere, especially in countries with stiffer vaccination requirements. In Canada in particular, CF Montreal traded away forward Erik Hurtado after he refused to get vaccinated, while many U SPORTS schools are requiring vaccines for their athletes (and, since then, those universities and many others in Canada have moved to requiring vaccines for everyone on campus). And now, the major junior Western Hockey League has announced that they’ll make vaccines mandatory for all players and staff this fall, and will also recommend that billeted players only stay with vaccinated families. Here’s more on that from CTV News:

All staff and players will require to be vaccinated 14 days prior to the start of the WHL regular season, scheduled to begin Oct. 1.

The vaccine mandate will also apply to all league officials, including referees, penalty box attendants, and timekeepers.

“The health and safety of our players and staff continues to be the number one priority for the WHL,” said Ron Robison, WHL commissioner, in a statement. “The policy is designed to further protect our players and staff in the WHL from the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

“With travel restrictions currently in place with the Canada/U.S. border as well as the province of Manitoba, it is important all players and staff are fully vaccinated in order to be eligible to play a full season in the WHL,” Robison added.

The WHL’s 2020-21 season wound up being a shortened and border-divided season from February to April this year, with planned but not-played playoffs (cancelled due to the border challenges). The other major junior leagues were also impacted; the Ontario Hockey League cancelled its season entirely, and while the QMJHL wound up playing a mostly-full season, the cross-league Memorial Cup championship was canceled for the second straight year (it also was canceled in 2020 amidst the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic).

So it’s understandable why Robison (seen above) and this league in particular are pushing particularly hard to get a regular-as-possible season in for 2021-21. And they also have even more reasons to do that than professional leagues given the billet family setup and given how they have teams in both Canada and the U.S.; that border is starting to open up, but mostly for fully-vaccinated individuals. And the WHL has more ability to mandate vaccines than many professional leagues, considering that their players are not currently represented by a players’ association (despite some past attempts at that). We’ll see how this mandate works out for them.

[CTV News; photo from WHL.ca]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.