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B.C. Hockey League: ‘We are asking for fans or we can’t play’

The Grizzlies, Alberni Valley Bulldogs and the rest of the BCHL will try to get their season started on Dec. 1.

Cleve Dheensaw / Times Colonist
JULY 17, 2020 09:43 PM

The B.C. Hockey League has announced a pandemic-delayed target start date of Dec. 1, but is facing the same conundrum as all gate-driven sports leagues below the major pro leagues.

The BCHL said it cannot begin its 2020-21 season without fans in attendance. Having spectators socially distanced up to a certain percentage of arena capacity would suffice.

Other than lack of atmosphere, fans in the stands are not an issue for the NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL or MLS, which have TV and other sources of marketing revenue. The BCHL has only the gate.

“We need to have people in the seats,” said BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb.

“We are asking [B.C. health authorities] to have fans or we can’t play. Our teams are businesses. But it’s a different model than the NHL.”

B.C. guidelines currently ban gatherings of more than 50 people, so the league cannot at the moment plan for having fans in attendance. Nobody, however, can anticipate what the rules will be in December.

“There are many issues. Is there a vaccine on the horizon? It’s not clear,” said Hebb, in a phone interview.

“But December is a long way away. Lots can happen in that time. B.C. has done a great job. We understand the provincial health office’s position.”

He said that is why the league has announced a Dec. 1 opening date rather than the usual time frame of September.

“We would rather start later, than earlier and jeopardize being shut down [if COVID-19 spikes in the league],” said Hebb, a former national championship basketball player with the University of Victoria Vikes.

“Player safety is one of the four pillars of our league.”

Hebb has been in contact with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture regarding a safe return to play: “The PHO [public health office] has indicated to us that waiting until December gives us the best chance at ensuring we have an uninterrupted season.”

Graham Fraser, chair of the BCHL board of directors, reiterated that the league cannot return without fans.

“The reality is that for us to be able to operate, we need to have fans in our buildings,” Fraser said.

“It became clear from our discussions with the PHO that the best way to accomplish this would be to delay the start of our season to give them time to assess the effects of a potential second wave of COVID-19 during flu season.”

BCHL teams will have the option to hold an extended training camp from September through November. BCHL training camps can open Sept. 8, but would be under the guideline of 50 people or less — including players, coaches and arena staff — in keeping with the current gathering restrictions. Teams can also continue to operate summer invite camps until Sept. 8.

Victoria Grizzlies head coach and GM Craig Didmon said he is preparing for the long training-camp period.

“We will train in a fashion that fits with the guidelines,” he said.

A preseason is dependent on when the province announces Phase 3 of its return-to-play plan, which would allow for more formal play, including exhibition competitions within regions. All sports and leagues in the province are awaiting that announcement, but none yet know when it will be.

“The players have to be of the mindset to be ready for whenever play begins,” said Didmon.

The 2021 Centennial Cup Canadian Junior A championship tournament, currently scheduled for May in Penticton, will likely be pushed back to June.

The 2020 BCHL playoffs were cancelled mid-stride because of the pandemic and just as the Cowichan Valley Capitals and Nanaimo Clippers were readying to play the Island Division final. The Island Division of the BCHL consists of the Grizzlies, Capitals, Clippers, Alberni Valley Bulldogs and Powell River Kings.

The BCHL is a prime producer of talent for the U.S. collegiate ranks and in 2019-20 surpassed its previous best number of players committed to NCAA Div. 1 programs with 166, compared with 151 in 2018-19.

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