Putting the puck between the pipes is a lot more thrilling when the crowd roars its appreciation — and Western Hockey League (WHL) players are more than ready for that feeling again.
The league kicks off its 56th season Friday. For the last two seasons, all 22 teams played in empty arenas and the Memorial Cup — the major junior championship between the winners of the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — was cancelled.
That is no longer the case this year. The cup is back, and for the 2021-22 season fans are finally welcome to return to the rinks.
"It means everything," says Vancouver Giants forward Justin Sourdif. "We play for the team, we play for each other and we play for the fans. They're the biggest reason why we play so hard and want to perform every night."
The Giants kick off their season on the road Saturday against the Victoria Royals.
Sourdif recently signed a three-year entry-level contract with the NHL's Florida Panthers and told CBC's The Early Edition Friday that despite the drawbacks, teams still played good, competitive hockey last season, even though it was scaled down from the regular 68-game schedule.
"Everybody was really thankful for what the league did and what our owners did for us," said Sourdif. "Just even getting those 22 games, that help some guys get drafted on our team, which was a huge bonus.
Top NHL talent supplier
According to the league, 33 WHL players were selected in the 2021 National Hockey League Draft in July, making the WHL the top supplier of talent to the NHL among all development leagues in the world.
Barclay Parneta, the Giants' general manager, said these stats are a silver lining after a stressful and difficult time for both players and league personnel.
"At the end of the day, when you see things like that happening, it really makes it worthwhile," said Parneta.
The 2021-22 WHL Regular Season will wrap on Sunday, April 3 and playoffs are scheduled to start April 8. For a complete schedule of WHL games, visit the league's website.
All staff and players are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The WHL said it has also strongly recommended to member clubs that all eligible members of billet households where players are residing should also be fully vaccinated.