A milestone season for the Western Hockey League is about to begin.
The WHL will open the doors on its 50th season next Thursday night in Moose Jaw as the Warriors play host to the Regina Pats.
“We can’t think of a better way to kick-off our 50th season than having a Pats, Warrior game in Moose Jaw,” said league commissioner Ron Robison at the league’s season opening news conference in Regina on Monday.
“It’s (not) only a remarkable rivalry but if you look at the province of Saskatchewan, this is where this league originated. The vision was from this part of the country.”
The Warriors and Pats were chosen to open the new season because the very first WHL final featured the Pats against the Moose Jaw Canucks. The Warriors will wear special Canucks jerseys those nights with a banner being raised to the rafters as Mosaic Place in their honour. Former Pat and Hall of Famer Clark Gillies and former Warrior Ryan Smyth will also be in attendance.
The entire first weekend of the WHL season will feature plenty of Saskatchewan content as the Saskatoon Blades will begin their season against the Prince Albert Raiders next Friday night. The Pats will then host the Warriors on Saturday.
“(The WHL) started really as a provincial league in Saskatchewan with some teams in Alberta and has now expanded to one of the largest junior hockey leagues of its kind in the world,” said Robison.
The league also has numerous events planned for the entire season to celebrate their golden anniversary.
There’s plenty to celebrate but there’s plenty of room for improvement as well. Over the years, attendance has sagged across not only in the WHL, but junior hockey in general.
The sport has never faced bigger challenges when it comes to getting people through the gates with sports and entertainment options at home at an all-time high.
“It’s a challenge every league is feeling quite frankly,” said Robinson, who believes all it takes is getting fans through the doors to get them hooked.
“When they see these young players play and how hard they play and the level they play at, they’ll be coming back without question.”
Robison and the league have definitely taken note of changes that the Pats new ownership group have taken to improve game day experience at the Brandt Centre as another way to try and get people in the building.
“I think when you look at (the) enormous changes in this game experience with the new clock system, it’s really what fans look for now, their expectations have changed,” he said.
“It’s all part of the evolution of the game and the expectations of the fans.”