BC Hockey reclassifies B.C. Junior B leagues to Junior A

The latest chapter in the fallout of the B.C. Hockey League’s decision earlier this spring to leave BC Hockey and Hockey Canada came down on Tuesday.

BC Hockey, which is the branch that governs all Hockey Canada-sanctioned amateur hockey in British Columbia and the Yukon, unveiled that its Board of Directors unanimously voted to reclassify the province’s three Junior B leagues as Junior A Tier 2.

When the BCHL left BC Hockey and Hockey Canada, it left the province without a Junior A level. Within Hockey Canada’s Canadian Development Model, Junior A hockey is the second-highest level a 16-20-year-old player can play, only following the Canadian Hockey League, which is comprised of the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The structure of the model is for players to move through the Minor Hockey system and then play Junior B/C/D hockey before advancing to the CHL or Junior A en route to Senior Amateur Hockey, Canadian University or College Hockey, or the professional ranks.

There was a hole in the model in B.C. when the BCHL became an independent league and the former Junior B leagues appealed to BC Hockey to be reclassified as Junior A to help fill the gap. Of course, reclassification doesn’t simply make the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, Pacific Junior Hockey League, and Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League all of a sudden the standard of Junior A hockey across the province, but these three leagues have a track record of developing players for higher levels that extends back further than 45 years.

The uniqueness of this situation is that all of the Junior A Tier 2 teams will have the opportunity to become Junior A Tier 1 in B.C. as soon as the 2024-25 season. It’s not a magic wand though, it all comes down to standards being outlined and adhered to.

“We are excited about the opportunities this new pathway will create for junior hockey players in B.C. and Yukon,” said BC Hockey Board of Directors Chair Stephanie White in a news release. “Having these teams dedicate themselves to raised standards, first to Junior A Tier 2, and eventually Junior A Tier 1 for some, will provide more of our talented players with a better player experience at the highest level in our province. BC Hockey is confident that this transformation will strengthen the development pathway immediately, and raise the overall hockey experience for players, coaches, and fans alike.”

Elevated standards coming to the former Junior B teams

According to BC Hockey CEO Cam Hope, when it comes to the required standards to be considered Junior A Tier 1, it’s unknown at this point exactly what those are. “It’s in progress right now, but I can give you the broad parameters of some of the things. Around officiating, I think all the leagues are committed to going to a four-person system. We have to watch the landscape a little bit this year, some officials have left and gone non-sanctioned with the BCHL,” said Hope.

“The things you might expect — standards (like) coaching certifications, some standards around player experience having to do with committed dressing rooms, facilities and most importantly around practices — practice quality, practice volume, (and) travel. (It’s) the usual check checklist for any league, but the details of it are something that we’re all working on together,” explained Hope. “We want to be mindful of the fact that this is pretty quick for some of these franchises, and some are far ahead of others. It’s a work in progress, but yeah, it’s a pretty long list, but it’s little by little we’re going to get there.”

Travel and accommodations are among the highest expenses for leagues like the BCHL who play games all over the province and in the case of the WHL, across western Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. One of the obvious concerns of the new Junior A model in B.C. is whether or not you might see a team on Vancouver Island end up travelling to the East Kootenays to play a regular season game. For now, the KIJHL, PJHL, and VIJHL will maintain a schedule that only sees teams in their respective leagues face each other.

“I think at this stage, one of the great things about this is that we don’t have any fixed ultimate golden ring to grab onto. We’re going to let the ecosystem settle and just be mindful of everybody’s best pathway to do where they to end up, where they want to be,” added Hope. “These three leagues operate within specific geographical footprints because of how unique B.C. is and we’re going to maintain that for now.”

For Hope and the Board of Directors at BC Hockey, it was important to fill the gap in the Canadian Development Model. “I think in terms of development opportunities and the Junior A designation, or that part of the pathway, it’s important to fill that,” he said.

“We’re really lucky because here in B.C. we have these three leagues that have been around a long time and the level of sophistication of at least some of the franchises is really high, as high or higher in some cases than Junior A existing teams and leagues in other parts of the country, so we’re really lucky that we’re able to fall back into there. In that respect, the player experience won’t change that much in some areas of what we’re doing, but this opens up more opportunities,” continued Hope.

“I mean the BCHL was an 18-team league and the number of players from B.C. and Yukon numbered fewer than 200, less than half the number of players on those rosters. With this move, some of the requirements include increasing roster size for players from here in B.C. and Yukon,” continued Hope, who added that the changes from Junior B to Junior A Tier 2 might not be entirely apparent when fans return to the rink in the late summer and early fall for the start of the 2023-24 season.

“I think honestly the true answer is that the changes are mostly going to be things that the fans don’t see. Going to the arena is going to feel the same, the teams are going to look the same, and their jerseys are going to be the same. As for a higher level, there’ll be different standards in terms of how they’re traveling and how they’re practicing and whether that’s visible to the fans, right away, I don’t know, but it’s exciting.”

BC Hockey outlines what teams and leagues have to do

According to Tuesday’s news release, the 45 new Junior A Tier 2 teams are dedicated to what BC Hockey has laid out for them to elevate to a minimum set of standards.

  • Co-operation and engagement with an independent advisory board to evaluate Junior A Tier 2 teams to determine which, and when, teams may be elevated to the Junior A Tier 1 level.
  • A rigorous process and analysis, conducted over the next three seasons, allowing individual teams and communities to find the level of Junior hockey most suited to them.
  • An understanding that the advisory board will soon be adding other requirements aimed at optimizing the player pathway and overall experience for participants in these leagues, with the intent of increasing them each season.
  • An enhanced dedication to engagement with grassroots hockey in B.C. and Yukon, ensuring that homegrown players receive the opportunity to compete at this level.
  • Increasing roster minimums for players from B.C. and Yukon.
  • An ongoing structure that ensures that teams achieving Junior A Tier 1 classification are ready to take on the added requirements and expectations of the nation’s highest level of Junior hockey competition.

Hope says the independent advisory board will have a diverse makeup from the sport across the province. “The construction of that panel is still morphing, but it will be essentially it will be the representatives from each of the leagues, some people from BC Hockey, some other stakeholders within hockey in B.C., within the elite streams, U18 streams, and some independent people.”

“We have this robust group that came up with this (Junior A) concept. It was a task team of 13 people and groups at the table included the Western Hockey League and Hockey Canada, all the leagues, of course, and some people that are just junior hockey experts that have been around. Out of that group, we’ll be able to cobble (the advisory board) together and we’ll take it from there. But a big thing, of course, is when you get a group like that together and you’re trying to decide on standards, price sensitivity (matters). If it’s not the number one thing, it’s in the top three of every decision we make.”

Current BCHL teams could return to Junior A?

With the landscape of junior hockey in British Columbia changing so dramatically, no one truly knows what the future holds for the 45 former Junior B teams in addition to the 17 BCHL teams. Hope feels that there Tuesday’s move could open the door for expansion in Junior A Tier 1 and Junior A Tier 2, plus the potential return of current BCHL teams to the sanctioned provincial model.

“There are some communities around B.C. that felt Junior A was maybe just a little bit out of reach. There are some communities in northern B.C. with good arenas and great fan support that did not have a league to play in at a Junior A or Junior B level. And there are some clubs now that are playing non-sanctioned junior hockey this year in the BCHL and elsewhere, that may want to have a place to return to sanctioned hockey,” said Hope.

“Getting the ecosystem set the way that we’re setting it this year I think solved all of those problems if and when they start to arrive. When I say problems, they’re good problems and that’s communities that want to come in and join what we’re trying to do here.

The shift from Junior B to Junior A Tier 2 came together quickly over the last few months, but it ultimately wasn’t driven by any group other than the teams and leagues involved. “The solution came from our membership,” mentioned Hope. “BC Hockey is a membership organization, that’s 60,000 participants, more than 200 members, minor associations, junior teams, whatever. It was important that the solution came from the members.”

“We challenged our Junior B leagues and teams, and the others in the elite ecosystem to work together, and ultimately that process led to a task team being formed for those, plus outside stakeholders. It was super gratifying to me that this did become a member-driven solution and it was, and will continue to be, with the standards evaluation. That was the process and it was unique and it was incredible to me that we were able to do it in such a short period of time.”