The BCHL sent out a news release on Friday morning to outline the league’s plan to open the 2020-21 season on December 1, pending approval from the British Columbia health authorities and return to play plans from viaSport, and each of the league’s 18 home facilities.
In a Q&A with BCHLNetwork co-founder and managing editor Brian Wiebe, BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb talks about preparations for the 2020-21 season between now and the December 1 start date, as well as the implications of starting three months later than normal.
Brian Wiebe: Are you convinced that BC and Canada will be healthy enough for the BCHL to return to play in December?
Chris Hebb: We’re going to do is give the health authorities a chance to ascertain that. The problem that all of us have is that we’re not medical doctors. One of the things we’ve done a good job with at the BCHL is listening. Starting December 1 gives you a much better chance of not getting shut down because if the health authorities allow you to play in December, it’s probably a pretty good sign that they think things are under control.
BW: How did the BCHL arrive upon the date of December 1?
CH: It’s not like we threw a dart, we had a conversation with the provincial health office and one of the things they worried the most about was the fall. The flu season is obviously a time that they have no idea how the virus is going to act. So we said, “Okay, let’s give the health authorities time to determine whether or not there is a significant second wave created by the flu season.”
December 1 is a date that we thought we could make work and still have a good season, but we really chose it because it’s really going to give the health authorities time to determine if there’s a second wave.
BW: How much collaboration is there with the other CJHL teams to look at the length of the regular season and playoffs, ultimately ending in time for the Centennial Cup in May?
CH: Every league is operating on its own. We’ve been talking because the CJHL has meetings on a regular basis. It’s really up to the leagues to determine, in their region, what makes sense. Everybody’s got a different experience with COVID-19 across the country, so the CJHL has allowed us to speak to each other and to connect, but at the end of the day, you have to make your own decisions.
BW: How late will the 2020-21 BCHL season go if you start on December 1?
CH: What we’re thinking right now is we can get the season and playoffs in by the end of May. That may push back the Centennial Cup, we don’t know if the Centennial Cup will be affected by COVID-19, there’s obviously already been cancellations of Hockey Canada events. We want to start our season and then end it by May 31.
BW: Is there a chance the BCHL won’t be represented at the Centennial Cup if there’s a conflict between the dates?
CH: That could happen, but at this point, we need to put a schedule together, and right now, May 31 is our end date.
BW: Is that with a full 54 game schedule?
CH: I don’t think we’ll be able to get 54 games in, we’re shooting for 46 if we can, and a lot of that will depend on when we start. The thinking is if we start December 1, we can get the schedule in by May 31.
BW: Is there a chance that the 2020-21 season starts earlier?
CH: Oh sure, if a vaccine happens between now and September, yes, there’s a chance that we’ll start earlier. We’ll make that decision then. The way we felt about it was that it’s better to schedule to start later and have a miracle happen to enable us to start earlier than starting earlier and taking risks.
BW: Do you think you’ll have fans in your rinks in 2020-21 without a vaccine?
CH: That’s up to the provincial health office. If we take the safety precautions outlined in our COVID-19 plan that we’ll submit, we should be able to have people in the seats. If they agree with us, that’s great, and if they don’t agree with us, they’re the ones making the decision. We feel if we can do adequate social distancing and hygiene, and limit the number of people in the seats, that we can have fans in the rinks safely.
BW: What’s the thought process behind a nearly three-month training camp?
CH: Our thinking is that these kids lost their playoffs last year, lost their summer, and the training they do in the summer, so we think they’re champing at the bit. If we can safely provide them with a place to train, and they love the game of hockey, we can bring them in and we should do that. Each team can decide whether or not they’ll have this extended training camp but we feel the kids will want to come.
BW: Your news release mentions that once the province moves into Phase 3 of viaSport BC’s Return to Play model, exhibition competition with other BCHL teams will be expanded in-region. Why not just play regular season games then?
CH: We don’t think it makes any sense to have the kids play games in the regular season that are in front of no audience. We just don’t think that makes any sense. I know they’re doing it in golf right now, but what we’d rather do is come back as a full league with people in the stands, on a limited basis restricted by the provincial health office. But at least what we’re doing is coming back as the BCHL, we won’t be a shadow of ourselves.
BW: Would you allow American imports if they follow the guidelines outlined by the various regulatory bodies and health authorities?
CH: The border is closed right now, and what we’re trying to determine is if those American players are allowed to come across, and that will be determined by Health Canada and border authorities. If our players have been tested for COVID-19 and are negative, that will allow them to come to the border and then it’s up to the border authorities if they will let them come across.
Our feeling is that American players, especially once they’ve tested negative, would come across the border and be quarantined for a couple of weeks and be able to join their teams after that.
BW: With the border closed, what’s the plan with your lone US-based franchise, the Wenatchee Wild, to start the season in December or even training camp in September?
CH: We’ve had lots of discussions with the Wild and one of the suggestions is whether it can move its operations to Canada and operate out of a rink up here, that’s being studied. We’re also waiting to see what happens with the Western Hockey League and the situation it has with teams in the US. We do not have a resolution to that situation as we sit here today.
BW: Has there been any discussion with NCAA schools and NHL teams about how to scout players if they aren’t allowed to watch in person or chat with the player after a game?
CH: It’s our intention to put even some of our exhibition games on HockeyTV so the scouts will obviously be able to see the players on video. The idea of scouts coming to the rinks is based entirely on whatever the safety protocols are. Hopefully, it doesn’t keep scouts from coming to see the players, especially if they’ve met the restrictions of the border and adhered to what we feel the safety protocols should be in our rinks, we’d love to see them.
BW: How much pressure is there to get back to playing?
CH: The key thing is to think about the kids, first and foremost. They’re at a critical point in their development. We look at the league as almost like a university and this is someone coming to a high level, educational environment that will help them not only get better as hockey players but help them with scholarships and their education, and really their lives. That’s the first thing I feel pressure about is how to get these kids back.
The second thing is the communities we represent. These communities have had teams, in some cases for decades, and we have a financial impact and a cultural impact. Given what COVID-19 takes away, it would be nice for those communities, on a limited basis, in a safe environment, to have their teams back.
That said, the BCHL will operate in the interest of safety. It’s one of our pillars, and player safety, fan safety, and community safety are paramount. We’re operating in an environment where our owners realize that, yes, we’d all like to be back on the ice, but we won’t do it in a way that will impact negatively all the progress we’ve made with COVID-19 in BC.
BW: Is it comforting to know that all the work and planning have resulted in pinpointing a date to get things started for 2020-21?
CH: I think people were looking for clarity, and with us announcing this date, it gives them a target, it also gives them a plan, parents can say, “Okay, my kid’s going to go off to the extended training camp.” That’s what we’re going to do until December 1 is actual, not tentative. Being able to announce a date, and a date we think that isn’t giving anyone false hope is important to us.
BW: In a COVID-19 world, you make a bunch of plans, only to see things change, it can be a really complicated process. Does this seem like an insurmountable task at times?
CH: I’ve been on this job for two years and there’s a challenge around every corner but I look at our front line workers and what they’ve been through and the people who have lost family members to this virus, and I have to give my head a shake if I’m feeling sorry for myself. It really is something, as a society, we’re having to do our part and the BCHL intends to do that.