The BCHL sent out a news release on Friday outlining the Board of Governors’ approval of an alternative scenario that sees the league be able to conduct a 2020-21 season, even without fans in the arenas. The new scenario includes a pay-to-play model for all players in the league.
In a Q&A with BCHLNetwork co-founder and managing editor Brian Wiebe, BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb talks about the alternative scenario for 2020-21, the league’s 25 percent capacity pitch to the Provincial Health Officer, the latest on the Wenatchee Wild, and more.
Brian Wiebe: How did you arrive at 25 percent capacity as the magic number for your 18 venues?
Chris Hebb: We polled our teams. We have different size arenas in our league and some hold up to 5,000 people and some hold as low as 1,100, so we certainly didn’t think that a raw number would work across the league. The idea about taking a percentage allowed us to, based on the size of the rink, account for social distancing, so that’s where the 25 percent came from. We just felt if we had that capacity, we could control it and keep people safe.
BW: Given that the request is to operate at 25 percent capacity, when would you need to know the decision from the Provincial Health Officer either way?
CH: Well, we’re scheduled to start December 1 and if they say to us, ‘We’re changing the rules and allowing 25 percent.’ then we’ll open the doors and let our fans in. Obviously, we’ll operate within the parameters given to us by the healthy authorities, but if they say we can have fans in seats, we’ll start doing so right away. We included physical distancing in the plan we provided to the public health office. This 25 percent threshold, we feel, will allow us to create the physical distancing necessary to have that many people in our buildings.
BW: You mentioned to me in a previous interview that the league didn’t want to operate without fans, didn’t want to operate as a shell of itself, so to speak. What’s changed since then?
CH: I think a lot of it changed when the kids came to training camp, and we didn’t want to look these kids in the face and say to them, ‘The best we are going to be able to do is send you home in December.’ That’s not good enough for the BCHL. We believe strongly that it’s our mandate to give these kids a season and it’s not an easy decision because it comes with some financial jeopardy. But we just turned it over to our Board and said, ‘There is another way to do this, with the 25 percent capacity may be in jeopardy, how do you feel?’ and the vote was unanimous in favour.
BW: Today’s news release mentions a reduced schedule. With a December 1 start and a reduced schedule, how many games are proposed in this alternative plan?
CH: We’ll have between 30 and 40 games depending on a number of factors, including the viaSport regulations, which means our league will be separated by region, and by cohorts of up to four teams. So if we have five teams (in a cohort), that means one team will have to take a 14 day isolation before they come back into the rotation. That obviously creates some scheduling issues in terms of the number of games, but we think we can get 30 to 40 in.
BW: Working in a cohort model of groups of four teams based on region, how does that break down geographically? There are obvious outliers in Prince George, Cranbrook, and Wenatchee.
CH: We haven’t finalized that yet. We have a plan that’s in front of the Board, and we’ll have a schedule update coming later. The league is set up pretty well geographically for a cohort situation, it does match well. There are some questions about who’s in which cohort, but we’ll have that out before the schedule also.
BW: Could the season start without Wenatchee, and then if the border opens, the Wild join midstream?
CH: It’ll be tough, but none of those decisions have been made. Obviously, if they were to come across (the border), they would have to quarantine for 14 days and would have to be given access by the border authorities. So it’s a very, very difficult situation for them, but we’re not giving up, and we feel that if the border does open, Wenatchee will be invited into our league again and the Wild will pick up right where they left off.
BW: What has the response been to this point from teams, players, and parents when the topic of a pay-to-play model is raised?
CH: There’s been very little concern across the league. Most of our families are thrilled that their sons will have the opportunity to play hockey (this season) and this high of a level. We’re actually quite encouraged by the fact that everybody understands that we’re in a situation that is unprecedented, and everybody understands that their kid can have an experience that will be extremely important to him. Whether it’s getting a scholarship or being seen by scouts, so everyone understands that this is not what we wanted to happen, but it is the way to have a season.
BW: Do you anticipate some teams will lose players because of the fee model?
CH: Sure, and if there’s a situation where a player has an opportunity to go somewhere else and doesn’t want to pay the fee, they can go, obviously. The way we’re looking at it is that the players have the freedom to choose, and we’re just starting out on this, but we’d also like to see if we can get corporate and government support for players who may not be able to afford to pay. It’s our intention to keep everybody, but that may not be possible.
BW: Is there uniformity in what the fee structure is across the league?
CH: The uniformity is that we are not going to profit off of this. Teams will look at their cost structure and they will charge on how they are going to be able to break even.
BW: Is the financial structure of ownership, like a non-profit society vs. private ownership, somewhat of a deciding factor on what fees will look like?
CH: It’s really going to be based on what a team’s costs are and how you are able to cover those costs. We’re looking for the players to help here, but if we can go and subsidize it with corporate support, or owners dip into their own pockets, which is a tough thing to ask them after what they’ve been through over the last six months, then we’re going to make it work.
BW: You mentioned in the news release the league is still looking for financial support from the government. Some will say that with a pay-to-play structure, government help shouldn’t be necessary. Why is government financial support something the league is still exploring?
CH: We won’t think the player fees will cover all the costs, and we also believe the BCHL deserves government support. We haven’t had any and we know the answer hasn’t been a final ‘no’, but we certainly hope the government, both at the municipal and provincial levels, see the value in the league and finds ways to support us. We have value in our communities and we have a financial impact, and we should be treated like other sports organizations that create tourism.
BW: Do you anticipate charge a fee for players to play next season as well?
CH: We are not charging a fee next season unless we’re in a situation, which obviously we don’t want it to happen, where we’re in a COVID-19 lockdown again. Our plan is to go back to business as usual next season.
BW: With buildings limited to 50 people or less, what have the discussions been in regard to access for broadcast and media personnel?
CH: It is our intention to broadcast the games, we’re trying to get clarity regarding having broadcasters and media in the building as well as players on the ice, officials, scorekeepers, etc. At this point, we’re trying to do whatever we can to enable us to play the game, and we’re seeking clarity on having other people in the arenas, but we don’t have the answers yet.