BCHL teams navigate a coronavirus-impacted world


Nothing has been normal since much of society shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the BC Hockey League, the season came to a screeching halt just before the start of the second round of the Fred Page Cup playoffs. For eight of the league’s 17 teams, their hopes of winning a potential league, regional and national championship were dashed.

The Nanaimo Clippers were on a roll when the shutdown occurred, having won nine straight games and 14 out of 15 to claim the Island Division title and sweep their first round playoff series against Powell River. The days around the shutdown were a roller coaster of emotions for Clippers vice-president and head coach Darren Naylor and his players.

“The time off between series allowed me the opportunity to drive up to Penticton and scout the Canadian Sport School Hockey League championships for a few days and it was there where I really felt the magnitude of this whole thing, being around hockey people and listening to stories and sensing the fear in their voices.”

On March 12, he headed back to Nanaimo and while on the way, received word about the season being shutdown and promptly called a meeting with his team. “A lot of players and staff showed some real emotions with tears flowing, one by one each player spoke of their admiration and love for one another. Our parting words for our players were that it’s important for all humans to be on the same team now.”

Victoria Grizzlies general manager and head coach Craig Didmon sent a clear message to his players before they dispersed. “My main message to the players has been more about being safe, to stay at home and take nothing for granted. It is important for them to spend time with family and take a step back.”

BCHL players, like most athletes, forced to work out at home

“I am not worried about pressing them to workout, as I know they all have a place in their home to workout and are keeping up with that. Some are more equipped than others, however, they all know how to train. They know that the level of their conditioning is the one thing they can control. A lot of things are out of their hands, but how hard they train and how conditioned they are when they come to camp is not.”

The Grizzlies season was already over when Hockey Canada cancelled the remainder of the season. They and eight other teams were already in off-season mode. Where COVID-19 threw a wrench into the off-season plans was the cancellation of the British Columbia Spring Hockey League and numerous evaluation camps for all teams. Both are used to identify potential players for 2020-21 and beyond, as well as raise funds for the bottom line.

The Merritt Centennials operate in the smallest market in the entire BCHL, with a trade area in the Nicola Valley of only 15,000. The loss of revenue from spring camp and potential sponsorships is definitely on the mind of Cents director of hockey operations John Stuart, but the organization is taking a big picture approach to COVID-19.

“This is much bigger than any concerns the Merritt Centennials have. Of course, we all miss hockey but in the grand scheme of things, there are more serious issues to be concerned about. We feel for all businesses, organizations, individuals, and seniors. We hope this does not have a crippling effect on anybody,” said Stuart.

Chilliwack Chiefs assistant general manager and associate coach Brad Rihela echoes Stuart’s sentiment. “As far as the cancellation, obviously we were completely on board with Hockey Canada and the CJHL’s decision.”

Waiting for Hockey Canada to give the green light

Trying to navigate through uncertain waters is difficult, but one saving grace for all BCHL teams is they are each in the same boat. Okay, enough with the nautical analogies, but the reality is all teams are at the mercy of provincial health authorities and Hockey Canada as it relates to returning to play.

Prince George Spruce Kings general manager Mike Hawes has embraced the fact that things aren’t business as usual because of what’s happening in the world – outside of hockey. “Our hockey and business staff are approaching things and preparing for next season as close to the way we do every other year. There is naturally some apprehension right now based on the uncertainty of what the next few weeks or months entail.”

“We are all hoping, like everybody else, that things die down and we can all get back to our normal lives. It certainly does put things into perspective though. There are a lot more important things in life than hockey.”

Victoria Grizzlies general manager and head coach Craig Didmon found that recruiting this off-season is different than he’s ever seen in his nearly 20-year career in junior hockey. “Travel is not an option and not hosting our prospects camp thus far, as well as no showcases and playoff hockey to scout, putting the pieces together for next year’s team is definitely being looked at through a slightly different lens than in the past.”

Holding camps around North America can be hugely beneficial to finding a diamond in the rough for BCHL teams. It’s something that’s not an option this year. Langley Rivermen GM and head coach Bobby Henderson identified the way things are this year represent a pretty big change.

“First off, we obviously had to postpone prospects camp, which is important for us to especially evaluate BC kids. A good chunk of our main camp invites and affiliate players are identified through that process.  We also had recruiting trips planned for Boston and Detroit for USA Hockey Nationals. We also rely on our Global Hockey Camps in Vancouver, Chicago, and Las Vegas as other platforms to shape our roster.”

No eye test for recruiting players this off-season

“In the absence of these opportunities to evaluate players, we’ve turned to watch as many games as we can online. We are relying on our contacts to provide players to key in on specifically, although you have to be careful because it doesn’t provide the same feel as the eye test. We’re hopeful that some of these opportunities will be there for players later in the off-season.”

Hawes emphasizes that all teams are affected by the situation. “I know with our team, we have had to cancel four scouting trips to tournaments or showcases that were planned for our hockey operations staff. This will give us less of an opportunity to get eyes on the players that we’ve identified as prospects for next season. That being said, I think most teams by this point in the recruiting process have a pretty good idea on which players they are after.”

“Teams will have to rely a little more heavily on their network of contacts and put a little more trust into those networks when it comes to information on a prospective player. Recruiting is a year-round process. Not getting one last look at the players we are after certainly makes the process a little more difficult but we are also at the point where we have gathered enough information on these players to make an informed decision moving forward.”

Didmon is using the time afforded by most people being under a stay at home order for the better part of the last two months to his advantage.

“One thing that I am finding to be extremely helpful, is that the people I lean on for feedback and perspectives on players are all at home and have the time to talk. Everyone is at home and readily available for long discussions, which has made it extremely busy for me as well,” he explained.

“All of our communication to the players we have been actively recruiting has to be done by phone, rather than visiting players or having them visit us. It is not too often that we have players coming to the team in training camp that we have never met face to face before. This will likely be a year where there are several players in that situation.”

COVID-19 hit spring camps hard

The financial hit of not carrying forward any spring programs is another aspect to strongly impact all 18 BCHL teams. “We had three prospect camps lined up in April and May, but with Hockey Canada saying that no camps are allowed until further notice, we have had to create a plan B and plan C type scenario as camps are super important to junior A hockey clubs and we need to get them in,” said Naylor.

“We also had to cancel a lot of our spring programs such as our U18 and U16 programs our extremely popular Little Rascals program and our battle camps. These are all important revenue streams for our club while engaging our community.”

The Chiefs have many players from their 2019-20 roster eligible to return, so the impact on recruiting may not be felt as dramatically for them as for some of the other teams. Rihela adds though, that not having any camps does present challenges.

“A couple of the issues the COVID-19 situation presents are not being able to host spring evaluation camps and not being able to travel as coaches to scout certain showcases. Having said that, there really aren’t many current showcases to plan for now since the majority have been cancelled.”

“I think what is happening is that coaching and management staff are relying on their past viewings and notes, watching as much video as possible, and so forth.”

Teams aren’t officially allowed to sign players for 2020-21 until June 1, but each team in the league has announced a handful of commitments for the upcoming season. Trades also are unable to be officially made until the beginning of June, but Hawes explains deals being made is one area that hasn’t really been affected much by the pandemic.

“The process of making trades is something that is always in play. Many regulations limit the times when teams can make trades, but discussions among general managers and coaches on various teams is always an ongoing thing. Most GMs or coaches have an idea on who they may covet on other teams, and who may or may not be available. Those discussions happen often.”

We’re all in this together

Regardless of the individual circumstances affecting each city and team in the BCHL, personnel from the league’s 18 franchises are taking a unified approach to the challenges laid out by COVID-19. The situation has also helped keep things in perspective for many.

Despite all of the negative that comes from the pandemic, Didmon feels there is a bit of a silver lining to this cloud. “All of the hardships and tragedy of the pandemic aside, I think this time will allow for our players and coaches a respite from the burden and pressures of playing and will allow the passion for the game to really boil inside of them.”

“The players will be off the ice for longer than they likely have for years and I think putting the game away for a little while, and focusing on the health and well being of our families and communities will help our players grow some perspective and understanding and truly appreciate what they have.”

Stuart and the Centennials are also looking at the pandemic as a situation that affects everyone, around the world. “Our thoughts are not only with our players, employees, volunteers, and sponsors, but all other organizations, businesses, and individuals as well. We are concerned for everyone’s safety right now.”

“The sport is big to us in the hockey world, it’s what we do, it’s who we are,” explained Naylor. “But this type of pandemic puts things in perspective and has made us all aware there are things much larger than hockey at this time. We will get through this and hockey will return.”

What the world looks like after this is all over is anyone’s guess. In the face of the COVID-19 uncertainty, the BCHL and its 18 member clubs duke it out against each other on the ice but are working together against the pandemic off the ice.