The Kalamazoo Wings announced this week that they will be sitting out this season due to the pandemic.
Earlier this year, the ECHL announced that several teams had opted to start the season in mid-December, with the remainder of the teams choosing to start their season in mid-January.
Since then, with the increase of COVID-19 cases and stricter guidelines from the government, the K-Wings, along with the Cincinnati Cyclones, Atlanta Gladiators, Idaho Steelheads and the entire North Division, which consists of six teams, have all announced that they will not play this season. Fort Wayne, Toledo and Wheeling are still deciding what they will do.
The 2020-21 ECHL season kicks off this Friday night with 13 teams starting the season.
Deciding to pull the plug on the season, was not an easy process for the K-Wings organization.
“After several months of planning, monitoring public health guidelines, and agreeing on an initial return-to-play date, this was an extremely difficult decision to make,” said K-Wings Governor and Director of Business Operations Toni Will in a press release from the team. “Our top priority has always been the health and safety of our fans, players, coaches and staff at Wings Event Center, and we determined it was in the best interest of our hockey community to sit out this season. We will immediately start planning for the 2021-22 season.”
The ECHL has been supportive of all of its member teams as they all work together during this unprecedented time. “This decision for our clubs was immensely difficult amidst the ever changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to return to play throughout our various jurisdictions,” ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said in a news release. “We look forward to returning fans and ECHL hockey in these great markets as they shift their focus to the 2021-22 Season.”
Head Coach Nick Bootland, who had been building his roster through the uncertainty, now has to switch gears and move forward toward next season.
“Today is a difficult day for all of us in the K-Wings organization, including our players, coaches, and front office staff members” said Head Coach Nick Bootland. “With the roster we put together, we were excited about our team’s chances to compete for a Kelly Cup this season. Now we’ll focus on building for 2021-22 and can’t wait to see our great fans in the stands again when it is safe to return.”
One of the players signed for this year, Justin Taylor, who was slated to begin his 11th season with the team, was
“It was a difficult decision for the Kwings to make,” Taylor said. “From a players point of view I can see both sides, obviously the health and safety of the players, staff and fan base is top priority. On the other side, I want to play, every other player wants to play. This is our livelihood and what we train and sacrifice for. It’s frustrating, but I understand why the decision was made to opt out of this season.”
With the season hanging in the balance, Taylor said he prepared the best way he knew how.
“There were many ups and downs leading up to the decision that was made”, Taylor said. My coach, (Nick Bootland) was transparent throughout the whole process. As optimistic as the whole coaching staff was, there was always a chance the season would not happen. I took precautions and planned for the worse. I continued my hockey training, albeit a little different with a possible later start to the season. Focusing more on injury prevention exercises and puck skills. As a player I thought of the things I can control and put my focus on that.”
Players that were signed to play for those teams that are opting out of the season have become free agents, meaning they can sign with other teams. Taylor is considering his options.
“I have opened the door of communication with (other) teams”, Taylor said. My wife and I made a prompt decision that not playing for 18+ months would not be a wise decision. All I can do now is prepare for a phone call that sends me to another organization. Playing hockey isn’t just a job, it’s my life, my love and what I do best.”
According to Bootland, the players rights have not been finalized at this time.
As they look ahead to the 2021-22 season, the K-Wings are thankful to everyone for their support.
“We will be communicating directly with our valued season ticket holders and corporate partners in the coming days, and want to thank all of our wonderful fans for their support during what has been a difficult year,” said Will. “We can’t wait to welcome everyone back to Wings Event Center when we drop the puck next October.”
By: Mark C. McGlothlen