Sylvan Lake Gulls coach Jason Chatwood (left) along with GM and President of Baseball Operations Aqil Samuel (right) have had to pivot to playing with only Canadian players in the 2021 WCBL season. (File photo by Sylvan Lake News)

Sylvan Lake Gulls coach Jason Chatwood (left) along with GM and President of Baseball Operations Aqil Samuel (right) have had to pivot to playing with only Canadian players in the 2021 WCBL season. (File photo by Sylvan Lake News)

Sylvan Lake Gulls go all Canadian in 2021

COVID-19 forces changes to WCBL schedule and rosters

It’s been almost a year since the Sylvan Lake Gulls announced their team name and set a course towards playing baseball in 2021.

Last March, which seems like a lifetime ago, the Gulls were just getting off the ground.

There have been many plans for the franchise ahead of their debut in the Western Canadian Baseball League, but another curveball came Thursday.

The league announced that because of border issues, only Canadian players will be on the field this season. With the many financial unknowns ahead of the 2021 campaign, only the Gulls, Lethbridge Bulls Edmonton Prospects and two Okotoks Dawgs teams are locked into next year.

“While we’re extremely disappointed that we won’t be seeing U.S. and other foreign players as we would in a normal season, we are confident that the quality of Canadian athletes who play this great game at an extremely-high, competitive level will perform for their respective teams,” said league president Kevin Kvame in a release.

“In addition, we felt it vital to let our significant number of foreign players know that the window and opportunity to get them to our 2021 clubs is becoming too tight and we want them to have the opportunity to adjust their plans given the current health restrictions in Canada.”

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Of the players the Gulls have signed for the 2021 season, 13 are from Canada. Gulls president and GM of baseball operations Aqil Samuel said it’s extremely tough news to lose out on a number of American players that had committed to Sylvan Lake.

He noted the team has already been in contact with Canadian players to fill out the roster and thinks they’ll be able to have a full team by the time first pitch flies this summer.

“We were keeping a spreadsheet of other Canadians that had reached out to us that we were interested in, just in case this scenario happened,” he said.

“Since the announcement (Thursday) we’ve had Canadian players scramble and reach out to us. We’ll be able to put together a roster.”

The league is still working with provincial health authorities to solve quarantine issues for Canadian players returning from college baseball, as well as COVID-19 testing. Kvame noted that even so, some Canadian players down south have already received a COVID-19 vaccination in their college state.

Due to the border issues, the Swift Current 57’s, Regina Red Sox, Weyburn Beavers, Moose Jaw Miller Express and Brooks Bombers won’t field teams in the WCBL this season. The Medicine Hat Mavericks and Fort McMurray Giants are still question marks to compete next year.

The league expects to release an updated schedule, details on the 2021 season, ticketing plans based on health authorities and additional information near the end of April. The season was originally set to being on May 27.

“The franchises and teams that have committed to this unique 2021 season realize the challenges ahead,” Kvame said.

Fan capacities are uncertain and will likely be limited to start for example.

“However, we’re also optimistic that our message about baseball being a naturally socially-distanced game in an outdoor setting will take root and make for positive communities for those choosing to participate this summer,” Kvame said.

Samuel said it will be a tough pill to swallow if fans won’t be allowed in the new Pogdal Park stadium in Sylvan Lake.

Financially, it will hurt the first-year franchise. Regardless, the team owners wanted to show their commitment to baseball by having the Gulls compete this season.

“We needed to keep these guys playing and keep it going, so that was the first thought…we wanted to show the community we’re committed to this. We want to eventually get people into that stadium, hopefully, this summer and show people around,” he said, adding a reduced capacity gives the franchise a chance to work out some of the game-day kinks in the new stadium.

“It’s not the most favourable plan, especially financially but it’s something we felt like we needed to do.”

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