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MINOR-LEAGUE HOCKEY

ECHL announces plans to play split season, with Maine and Worcester aiming to start January 15

Minor league hockey is hoping to return to Portland and Worcester, as well as the rest of the ECHL, by mid-January.
Minor league hockey is hoping to return to Portland and Worcester, as well as the rest of the ECHL, by mid-January.Bruce Bennett/Getty

The ECHL announced a split-season plan for its 2020-21 hockey season, with both the league’s New England representatives in line to begin play on Jan. 15.

The 26-team league, the third rung of professional hockey in North America beneath the National Hockey League and American Hockey League, announced Friday that 13 teams will begin a 72-game season on Dec. 11, and 12 others will begin a 62-game one on Jan. 15 “upon jurisdictional approval.”

The league’s 26th team, the Atlanta Gladiators, announced on Oct. 1 it would voluntary suspend operations for this season. Atlanta, which has been the Bruins' ECHL affiliate since 2015, said capacity restrictions due to COVID-19 precautions are too much of a hindrance for the team to “conduct regular business” and “achieve the standard of fan experience that season ticket holders and fans expect and deserve.”

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Atlanta plans to return to play in 2021-22. Any players on its roster not signed with the Bruins have been made free agents for the season.

The Maine Mariners and the Worcester Railers will both participate in the second half of the split season, if it is played.

“Due to the current indoor capacity restrictions in the state of Maine, as well as similar challenges faced by each of our divisional opponents, we concluded a Jan. 15 start was the most realistic possibility,” said Danny Briere, Maine Mariners Vice President of Operations and a 17-year NHL center, in a release.

Worcester Railers president Stephanie Ramey said her organization hopes their fourth season will be played in front of fans.

“Our team has been working hand-in-hand with the DCU Center to develop a comprehensive re-opening strategy that will offer attendees a safe and controlled setting, focusing on physical distancing, safety protocols, cleaning and hygiene, mobile ordering, attendee traffic flow and communication,” Ramey said in a release. “We believe wholeheartedly that we can launch an ECHL hockey season in Worcester and are prepared to cooperate with city and state officials, as well as health experts to ensure the safety of our fans, players and staff.”

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The ECHL suspended its 2019-20 season on March 12 due to the global pandemic, then canceled all remaining games two days later. In August, roughly two months before the scheduled start of the new season, it announced hope to play a full 72-game slate beginning on Dec. 4.