The BC Hockey League has announced a further delay of the start of the 2020-21 season to February as a result of the current health order in place from the BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry regarding sports and extracurricular activities.
The order restricts BCHL to participating in Phase 2 activities, which include fundamental movement skills and modified training and drills. Physical distancing on the ice remains at three metres and game play or scrimmages aren’t permitted.
In a Q&A with BCHLNetwork co-founder and managing editor Brian Wiebe, BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb talks about the extension of the health order, the number of players leaving the BCHL for the US Hockey League and North American Hockey League, the likelihood of a hub situation to complete the season, and more.
Brian Wiebe: What was the initial reaction to the extension of the current Provincial Health Officer order?
Chris Hebb: I can’t say we were surprised because I think everybody realizes that the PHO is always going to err on the side of caution and they’re still waiting to see what the ramifications of the Christmas and new year’s break were on the curve. So I wouldn’t say it was completely unexpected and we accept that those restrictions need to be kept in place and we’re not throwing in the towel.
BW: You mentioned before that you’re kind of locked into an end date for the 2020-21 season because of arena availability. With a potential February 8th start date, has the end date now shifted at all?
CH: No, it’s really being dictated by the arenas still, it just reduces the number of games. We thought we could get in the neighbourhood of 28 games if we were able to come back now. It’s just going to cost us some games and we’ll look at it again on February 6th.
BW: What is the status of a hub idea for the season?
CH: We approached the PHO about the concept of a hub and we were using Penticton as the site and the idea was to bring all of the teams there and “bubble” them. The fact is we needed an answer on that prior to Christmas in order for us to be able to plan and execute it, and they were unable to give us that answer based on very good reasons.
The timing was not good, especially with the Christmas and new year’s break coming up (at that time), they worry a lot about a group of people coming into a community the size of Penticton where you don’t have the capability to deal with a surge in cases.
We’re turning over every stone and we put together a presentation there that we spent a lot of time on, they read it, they reviewed it, and it just did not stand up to the restrictions that they need to have imposed at this time.
BW: Is there any wiggle room at all to see how a hub format could work, given that the number of games you’re able to get in for a season is dwindling?
CH: I think it’s not really about the number of games and the pressure we feel as a league, the way they look at everything is “What is the risk to the public?”
What we’re hoping is that we can get into a situation that they see as safe, even if there is some sort of outbreak, which we feel strongly there would not be based on the protocols we would have in place. But they’re the ones that need to make that decision and they’re the ones that need to weigh the risk.
BW: In a previous interview, you mentioned that if the restrictions keep your teams off the ice until March, that might be the point when a meaningful season isn’t possible. Is that still the case?
CH: I think what will happen is if the restrictions don’t get lifted on February 5th, we will obviously get together with our board of governors and see where we’re at. I think if the PHO pushed the restrictions into March, and it was lifted in early March, we would get the board of governors together then and say, “Is it worth it to have a season?” I think if we get past mid-March, we’re likely in a situation where we’ll have to shut it down.
BW: What is your reaction to a number of players who were committed to BCHL teams for this season now joining teams in the US?
CH: The way we feel about it is, obviously these kids want to develop, and we think the BCHL is the best league for them to do that in, but with COVID-19 and the restrictions in BC, they’ve been forced to look elsewhere.
Hockey Canada has some protections in place that would keep Canadian players in Canada, but Americans are being recruited to play in the US and as long as they are following the protocols between Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, they get to go.
At the end of the day, this is a decision for a family to make, the players and their families. We still intend to play this year, the unfortunate thing is that any player that does leave for another league in the US will not be able to come back. So yes, we have some players making decisions to go, but we have a lot of decisions being made to stay.
BW: Initially it was mainly American players leaving to go to the USHL and NAHL, and the holiday break and some of the restrictions likely contributed to it, but recently there are more Canadian players leaving as well. Do you think for players committed to NCAA programs, there is an influence from the schools?
CH: I think the NCAA coaches want their recruits to play and I don’t blame them for that. I think that if players are leaving the BCHL and not giving it a chance to come back (this season), then they’re taking a risk.
They’re taking a risk with their health, but that at the end of the day is the player’s decision and coaches always want to see their players develop. So I don’t blame any of the NCAA coaches for the advice they’re giving the players who will end up in their program.
BW: Has there been any consideration for an additional season of eligibility for 2000-born players, similar to what the NCAA did?
CH: There has not been any discussion that we’re aware of regarding the extension of 20-year-olds by Hockey Canada. This isn’t a decision the BCHL can make.
BW: Last April, the league was pursuing financial assistance from the BC government to help offset the losses from the early cancellation of last season. Where did you get with the government in that pursuit?
CH: We’re still in the middle of that pursuit, we’ve had conversations with several people in the Ministry. The (provincial) election obviously interrupted that discussion, but we’re picking up the conversation now.
We feel strongly that once they see the argument that we’re making, which is an economic argument, the league having to shut down cost 17 communities a significant amount of direct spending (and) it cost jobs. I also think there’s a strong case to be made that there’s a cultural impact in these communities when their hockey team doesn’t get to play.
We are not, in any way, trying to put ourselves in a position where we’re taking money that we think will get our owners’ losses back, we’re not even close to that. We’re just asking for some money to tide over if a season is lost so that we’ve got everybody back next year.
BW: What is the status of the pay-to-play model that’s been underway for your players since September?
CH: It’s still in place, it has to be. We need our costs covered if we have these kids training with us, we need our costs covered if they’re going to be playing games eventually, so it’s the only option we’ve got.
BW: What message do you have for fans, players, and parents in the BCHL in light of this latest extension of restrictions by the PHO?
CH: I feel so bad for our players, they’ve done nothing but adhere to all of the protocols we’ve put in place. They’ve been model citizens and to not have them on the ice is heartbreaking.