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BCHL’s return-to-play plan includes COVID-19 testing

Cleve Dheensaw / Times Colonist
MARCH 13, 2021 06:00 AM

Testing for COVID-19, reportedly a key previous stumbling block, will be part of the B.C. Hockey League’s 2020-21 season set to run five weeks beginning the first week of April.

The BCHL said it has hired a chief medical officer to operate its COVID-19 safety measures, which include testing and a quarantine period for players and team staff.

“We want to thank the public health office, the chief medical health officers and regional public health staff for working with us on our proposal over the past few weeks and ­getting it to a point that both sides felt was safe,” BCHL board of governors chairman Graham Fraser said in a statement.

Fraser noted the BCHL safely played an extended pre-season from September to mid-November.

“We proved in the fall that our COVID-19 safety plan was effective after playing 89 games with zero transmissions,” he said. “It’s been a long road for everyone involved since we were shut down in November. We are grateful that we get a chance to finish what we started and get our young athletes back on the ice.”

The five-team B.C. Division of the Western Hockey League, which includes the Victoria Royals, was ­earlier okayed for a bubbled and abbreviated 24-game season beginning on March 26 in the Kelowna and Kamloops hubs. It is the last WHL division to begin play. The WHL is conducting extensive private testing and said there have been no positive results for COVID-19 among the 1,949 tests administered across the league from Feb. 12 through Friday.

The provincial health office decision to OK the BCHL season, which the Times Colonist reported on Thursday, was made official by the league ­Friday. League commissioner Chris Hebb described it as “months and months of hard work behind the scenes.”

Premier John Horgan, an avid sports fan, tweeted: “The goal line is in sight and we’re ready to gradually and safely return to more activities. Thank you to the BCHL for working with our government and Dr. Bonnie Henry to develop the strict health ­protocols to keep players, coaches, staff and communities safe.”

Victoria Grizzlies majority owner and governor Ron Walchuk said: “It’s been a long journey to get to this point. I haven’t been this emotional in a long time.”

The league said there will be five playing hubs but did not release locations. The Times Colonist has learned the Island hub will be located at Weyerhaeuser Arena in Port Alberni with the host Alberni Valley Bulldogs, Nanaimo Clippers, Cowichan Valley Capitals and Grizzlies playing there.

“Our players would have travelled to the Yukon to play games,” said ­Walchuk.

The fifth Island Division team, Powell River Kings, will play in the Coquitlam hub. The other hubs will be in Chilliwack, Penticton and Vernon.

Fans will not be allowed in the hub arenas in either the WHL or BCHL. With no revenue streams, it will cost teams to play. So the BCHL and B.C. Division of the WHL have asked the provincial government for a combined $9.5 million of pandemic recovery relief, but have not heard back. There are 17 teams in the BCHL. The Wenatchee Wild of Washington will not be able to play due to the closed Canada-U.S. border. An unconfirmed media report Friday indicated the Langley Rivermen will also opt out.

Even a truncated season will at least give the graduating 20-year-old players some semblance of a final junior season and also feature the 18-year-olds for the 2021 NHL draft and other players looking for U.S. collegiate NCAA athletic scholarships.

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.

“With no games since November, it has been difficult for these players to get noticed. As a result, we’ve seen a significant effect on the number of college commitments in the league this year,” said BCHL executive director Steven Cocker. “We are thrilled to get our players back in the spotlight.”

Teams are expected to play between 18 to 20 games each. The schedule will be released in coming weeks.

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