BC Hockey League

BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb Q&A: League pursues financial assistance from BC government


The BCHL sent out a news release on Wednesday morning to outline the league’s intent to approach the provincial government for financial assistance in the wake of the 2019-20 season being cancelled. The league’s 18 member teams, much like the rest of the world, is dealing with the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a Q&A with BCHLNetwork co-founder and managing editor Brian Wiebe, BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb talks about approaching the provincial government for assistance and what steps are in place to prepare for the 2020-21 season.

Brian Wiebe: Is the financial assistance request over and above the funding for small businesses and sport that has already been announced by the provincial and federal governments?

Chris Hebb: Yes it is. Some of our teams have applied for the small business support and we’re encouraging that. But this (call for financial assistance) would be over and above that support. It’s something that happens in junior A leagues across the country, where the provincial government does spend money because they see the value. We’ve never asked for a dime from the provincial government in the past. However, given what COVID has done to deplete our revenues, we just want to have a conversation and see if there is something that can be done to tide us over. And for us to be able to demonstrate to the province the value of the BCHL.

BW: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced emergency funding to Heritage Canada, which is all about arts, culture, and sport. Have you encouraged teams to apply for that?

CH: Yes, absolutely, that was a great announcement last Friday and $500 million seems like a lot of money, but when you split it between arts and culture and sports, there won’t be a lot to go around. We will certainly pursue it and we’ve gathered all the support we need to make a federal pitch as well, but we’re starting with the province.

BW: In the news release this morning, you mention that you’ve identified potential financial issues down the road due to this pandemic and want to address these problems now. What specifically are those financial issues?

CH: It falls into one category, and that’s bums in seats. That’s exactly how our teams stay viable. At this point, we don’t know when we’ll have any arena availability, and that means it’s very difficult to sell tickets – and it’s doubly difficult to sell sponsorship because a sponsor is there because they are expecting to see people in the seats. Those are the two main revenue streams for our teams and both of them are affected by the pandemic.

BW: You were on Global BC on the weekend talking about the league’s contingency fund, Jay Janower tweeted out that it was upwards of $3 million, which breaks down to just over $166,000 per team. Is that how it was distributed?

CH: It’s between $150,000 and $250,000 per team, based on whether they lost playoff revenue or not because some of the teams were not generating that. It partially reflects our collective loss, not only in what we lost from the playoffs but also what we lost in spring revenues with our camps and leagues, and also what teams were projecting this would cost them in ticket sales and sponsorship.

BW: What do you say to those who are opposed to privately-owned junior hockey franchises asking for government funding?

CH: One of the things that people have to understand is, yes we have private owners, but we also have non-profit societies that are basically community-owned teams in our league. They’ve been around for close to 59 years and the reason they’ve been able to survive is they draw upon community assets. It’s really about whether you believe the BC Hockey League adds value.

Here are a couple of things that I think people should remember. One is, in terms of financial impact, it’s over $12 million every year. Every team spends $750,000 to travel, put the players up, buy equipment – all of that sort of thing. The second thing is, this year along, we’re going to have 172 of our players – out of 400 – who are going to receive scholarships to move on to an education. That amounts to about $3 million every year in scholarship money that they’ve derived from being able to show their skills in our league.

And then the third thing is the impact on the community. All of our teams spend time in schools, seniors’ homes – the teams make sure the players are there to be part of the community. They are not like a pro player who will show up at an event once in a while, our kids are in the schools all the time. It affects the social and cultural fabric of every community as well.

BW: Are there markets in the league where the social and cultural fabric is impacted more so than others?

CH: Of course. We have a disparate group of owners. We have some owners who probably won’t take any (financial) help because they’re wealthy and they can afford not to. What we’re trying to do is get the revenue to places where it’s needed most. If the government requires us to do that, we’d go along with it. At the same time, you look at the differences in the teams around the BCHL and some are going to need some help.

BW: With word from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry that we will not have big events where people gather this summer, does that effectively already push back training camp, pre-season and the start of the regular season?

CH: No, we’re pretty early in the game to make that kind of determination. But we wouldn’t even be the ones to make that determination, it’s Hockey Canada who makes those decisions and they’ll base their decisions on provincial authorities. If I’m a betting man, because BC has been so proactive, we’re probably in one of the best positions of any junior A league in the country to come back on time. I’m not getting ahead of Hockey Canada there because ultimately they make the decision, but you just look at how well we’ve flattened the curve and it makes us optimistic.

BW: Has Hockey Canada given you any indication as to where its planning for 2020-21 is at? 

CH: We talk to Hockey Canada every week through the Canadian Junior Hockey League and they give us their very latest update. They’re planning every scenario with the first scenario for everybody to be back on September 1st, but we don’t know yet. We’re not going to get ahead of the decision-makers but we’re going to be prepared to play. And that’s what we’re saying with this announcement, instead of waiting until there’s a crisis (with our teams), let’s talk to the government now and see if there’s a way we can get some help.

BW: In the next few months, if the curve is flattened in BC and the provincial health authority says we can go back to community centres and arenas and places like that, have you had any indication from Hockey Canada and the CJHL that the BCHL might start-up but junior A leagues in other provinces might not?

CH: They haven’t yet and they’re still making decisions based on the fact that they’d love to see everybody come back at the same time. However, we feel that if there’s a chance for the BC Hockey League to come back earlier and Hockey Canada allows that to happen, we’ll be there.

BW: Over the last week, you have been clear in stating that there may not be a 2020-21 BCHL season. At this point, how confident are you that there will be a season in some way, shape, or form?

CH: Again, we’re just leaning on what we’re hearing from Hockey Canada and the provincial health authorities. I would say in the last week, with Dr. Henry saying that by the middle of May there might be ways that sports could start up again, it feels to me like we’re starting to have a more optimistic tone. We are flattening the curve and we just don’t want to go out and get ahead of the provincial health authorities and neither does Hockey Canada. We’re going to be walking hand in hand to what we feel is a safe return to play.

BW: Is there a point this off-season where teams must commit to playing in 2020-21 if there is a season?

CH: We’re going to come to that point. If we get into September (and things are still like this), we’ll have a tough time putting a season together. It is still only April and we’re planning on a schedule of 54 games starting in September. We also have one that’s 50 games, we also have one that’s 46 games, so we will play a reduced schedule if we have to, but we don’t know of any drop-dead date at this point.

BW: A 46 game schedule would buy some time and still be able to get a somewhat complete season in. What date would it be looking at for a start?

CH: It puts us into October and I think the other issue is if we change the way the schedule works just to help teams save money. We haven’t decided that yet but that is something down the road and it is part of the discussions that we’re having with our Board.

BW: How much does the league and its Board discuss what a new normal could look like given the nature of the sport is one where players are in close quarters in the dressing room, on the bus, in hotel rooms, etc.?

CH: It’s something that’s discussed at the CJHL level. What we’ll do is fall in line with whatever Hockey Canada dictates. We’ve asked Hockey Canada if there will be new protocols when we do return to play and we fully expect that there will be, so it’s just a question of what they are.

BW: Has Hockey Canada asked for input from the leagues regarding the entire COVID-19 situation?

CH: We speak to Hockey Canada through the CJHL. We have a Board of Governors made up of the commissioners and when we speak to Hockey Canada, it is either through our president Brent Ladds or as a Board. All of the conversations we’ve had with Hockey Canada so far have been with every commissioner on the call. That’s the way we’re handling this and we’re not talking to Hockey Canada directly as individuals.

BW: Do you feel your voice representing the BCHL is being heard?

CH: Absolutely it is, I think there’s a lot of respect – not only at the CJHL but at Hockey Canada – for our league. We feel strongly that we’re being proactive to make sure that we’re taking care of our own backyard, but at the end of the day, we’re also part of a national organization that has a voice at Hockey Canada and our voice is being heard.

BW: In other media interviews over the last little while, you’ve expressed concern that if a team does go on hiatus for 2020-21, there is a chance it may fold. Many people in your communities are heavily invested in their teams and the league. How do you put those concerned minds at ease?

CH: What we don’t want to get into is a bunch of what-ifs. What we do know now is that every single team has declared it is playing when hockey comes back and we’ll deal with any issues that come up in the future. Will it help to have provincial government support when it comes to decisions like that having to be made? Absolutely. That’s why we’re asking for a call with the government.

BW: Right now the outreach to the provincial government is for nothing more than a conversation, correct?

CH: That’s right, we don’t have a demand, we don’t have a number, we’re just saying, “We want to tell you about this league,” because I think, in some respects, because it’s so diverse and so broad across the geography of the province, that there may be ministers or even MLAs who are unaware of the impact of this league.

BW: Is there anything you’d like to add?

CH: I just wanted to say that this league’s been around for 59 years, we’re not going anywhere and we look forward to our 60th anniversary with 18 really strong teams. We’re all going to get through this together and we hope that our fans understand that we’re doing everything we can to make sure that every single franchise is viable.