The BC Hockey League will look more normal for the 2021-22 season.
Of course, how the pandemic plays out over the next couple of months as the vaccine rollout in British Columbia continues will dictate things, but the BCHL is planning for a return to normalcy.
In a recent episode of the BCHL podcast, league executive director Steven Cocker described how they continued to plan for the 2021-22 season despite the hectic, six-week sprint that was the pod season.
“Throughout the pandemic, our league didn’t take our foot off the gas. Yes, we still had our return-to-play task force calls going on all cylinders trying to find a way to return to the ice, but we continued to operate our committees in the league,” Cocker explained on the podcast.
“We’re looking at going back to our 54 game season, we’re already working on a schedule for that. The plan is that all 18 teams will be back in action and we’re excited to have the entire BCHL family back.”
Conducting normal business next season includes returning to the previously-announced 54-game schedule and regular divisional alignment after playing a 20-game schedule and temporarily realigning this season because of travel restrictions between provincial health regions.
The configuration for 2021-22 sees the Prince George Spruce Kings move from the Mainland Division to the newly formed Interior Conference. The Cranbrook Bucks, now entering their second BCHL season, are also part of the Interior along with the Spruce Kings, Penticton Vees, Trail Smoke Eaters, Wenatchee Wild, Merritt Centennials, Salmon Arm Silverbacks, Vernon Vipers, and West Kelowna Warriors.
Meanwhile, the Island and Mainland Divisions have merged into a Coastal Conference featuring the Alberni Valley Bulldogs, Cowichan Valley Capitals, Powell River Kings, Coquitlam Express, Surrey Eagles, Nanaimo Clippers, Chilliwack Chiefs, Langley Rivermen, and Victoria Grizzlies.
From 58 to 20 to 54
“The decision to reduce our games next season to 54 was a difficult move but, with our league mandate around player safety, we see this as what’s best for the development of our players,” said Cocker in a news release from February 2020. “This will also result in fewer 3-in-3 weekends and proper rest between games in order to maximize time for practice and recovery.”
Other than the pod season this year, the 54-game season in 2021-22 is the fewest number of games in a BCHL regular season since 1987-88 when teams played 52 games each. From 1988 to 2020, teams played anywhere from 56 to 60 games per season.
The season start will also be pushed back later in September, with training camp and pre-season games not beginning in August as they have in previous seasons.
“Another important component of the schedule was getting out of the month of August, our camps will now open in early September with season openers at the end of the month. We feel this will best serve our athletes in their out-of-season development,” said Cocker.
It remains uncertain whether the Wenatchee Wild will be permitted to travel to play games in Canada because of continued border restrictions. The Canada-US border remains closed to non-essential travel until the third week of June at the earliest.
Proof the protocols work
BCHL teams and their players showed a huge commitment to following COVID-19 protocols this season, with no positive tests among all players participating in the pod-based games. Pulling the season off successfully is something Cocker sees as a huge positive in spearheading a return to sport across the province.
“It’s a huge builder of trust and reputation with the provincial health office, which we never had a relationship with them, we never needed a relationship with them. But working through this pandemic, we’ve shown who the BCHL is and how we can be leaders in the return to sport, and how we can do it in a safe manner,” Cocker noted on the BCHL podcast.
“Obviously, our protocols were working, so we’ve built up that reputation and I think it will serve us greatly next year. Hopefully, there’s not much we do have to deal with (as it relates to COVID-19), but if we do, I think the provincial health office will be quite pleased to work with us and maybe even use us as a testing ground for the return to hockey next year and the return of fans in the buildings.”
Celebrating a diamond anniversary
The 2021-22 season is a big one for the BCHL, as it marks its 60th anniversary.
“We continued to talk about what we want to do with our strategic plan in getting our league better and ensuring a bright future for the league as we exit the pandemic. The league has been working hard on what is in the future. Talking about next year, we’re super excited about the 60th anniversary, it’s going to be a special year for us. We have some great initiatives and events that we’re looking to bring to next season.”