Jorge Parra / UnderDog Productions

How the BCHL has operated during the COVID-19 pandemic

Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the BCHL has adapted in several ways. Current restrictions have allowed all BC-based teams to play full seasons so far.

Previously, teams had to adapt to a changing situation. Instead of a 54 game regular season, teams only played 20 games. Participating teams were concentrated into five regional pods. Because of border restrictions, the Wenatchee Wild chose to opt out last season.

As of now, teams can travel across the province, and fans are allowed back to games provided they adhere to restrictions. They have to show their BC vaccine passport, one piece of identification and wear a mask. And while fans are allowed back at games, some teams still have limited capacity because they play in certain regions where vaccination rates are still low.

For this article, I want to chart the changes BCHL teams have undergone since the pandemic started. Included is how the league operated at different stages during the last 19 months. I also want to talk about the costs of the pandemic because, during the last 19 months, teams lost more than money.

From March 2020 to November 2020

When the pandemic started, the BCHL had only completed the first round of the 2020 playoffs. They were unable to resume them, and the entire post-season was canceled.

While everyone was dealing with strict COVID-19 restrictions, players from the remaining teams used EA Sports’ NHL 20 to simulate the remainder of the playoffs. Teams and players were recreated using assets in the game. I wrote an entire article about this earlier.

Before the BCHL played again, it adopted a new system, and training camp and the pre-season were extended. Teams were concentrated in regional cohorts of four, with travel limited to other cohort members.

To make the games extra meaningful, two of the cohorts competed for regional cups. The Nanaimo Clippers won the Island Cup, while the Penticton Vees won the Okanagan Cup.

Hockey ended abruptly when restrictive measures returned in the late fall of 2020. Teams were put in limbo for several months and a solution wasn’t reached until March.

From March 2021 to September 2021

Eventually, the Provincial Health Officer approved a proposal for five regional Pods. Teams were concentrated in Penticton, Vernon, Chilliwack, Coquitlam, and Port Alberni. Ice time availability at the Poirier Sport and Leisure Complex forced the Coquitlam pod to move to Scotiabarn in Burnaby.

In November, Wenatchee opted out of the season because of the US-Canada border closures and restrictions on gyms and arenas in Washington state. Before the pod season started, the Langley Rivermen opted out as well.

Each team ended up playing twenty games in total. Because of the logistical challenges involved, the league decided to forego a post-season. Fellow BCHLNetwork writer Chris Keck wrote an article about a potential post-season that could’ve occurred.

In the end, five teams emerged on top. The Spruce Kings won the Chilliwack pod, while the Vees won the Penticton pod. Vernon won its home pod while Surrey claimed the Coquitlam pod. On Vancouver Island, Victoria was victorious in the Alberni pod.

After the pod season was done in May, the league made preparations for the 2021-22 season.

By this time, the vaccine rollout was in full effect. The PHO felt it was time to loosen several restrictions. However, they also brought in several more, including an indoor mask mandate as well as the vaccine passport.

If fans wanted to attend games, they had to wear a mask inside at all times. The only exception was when eating or drinking. As for the passport, people had to sign up on the BC Government website. Teams scan the vaccine passport and match it with one piece of identification before letting a fan inside.

October 2021 to present

At the beginning of the season, teams were allowed 50 percent capacity for fans, which was eventually lifted in parts of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. Things changed in several regions as vaccination rates lagged behind others.

For the seven teams in Interior Health, they are still limited to 50 percent capacity for fans. This list includes Merritt, Salmon Arm, all the Okanagan teams, Trail, and Cranbrook.

Up north, the Spruce Kings are also limited to 50 percent capacity for games. In fact, in Northern Health, the entire city of Prince George is in the specific region where the restrictions are in effect. In Fraser Health, the health restrictions only apply to cities in the Fraser Valley east region, including Chilliwack.

Every other team not listed is currently allowed full capacity for games, including Powell River, Alberni Valley, Nanaimo, Cowichan Valley, Victoria, Surrey, Coquitlam, and Langley. Until vaccination rates rise, the teams covered by Interior Health, plus Chilliwack and Prince George are limited to 50 percent capacity.

The costs of the pandemic

The last 19 months have been trying for everyone. To have the 2020-21 pod season, BCHL teams took a financial hit. More than once, the league petitioned for financial assistance from the government. Aside from the monetary costs of the pandemic, there is another cost starting to emerge.

The Bucks didn’t have a proper home opener until Oct. 8, 2021, and defeated the Trail Smoke Eaters 5-3 in front of 2,350 fans. That game was the first time they played in front of their fans since the franchise was founded. Aside from the long delay, there’s another consequence emerging.

The unfortunate reality is some people object to the pandemic measures. In BC, like in other areas around the world, there are objections to the vaccine passport and mask mandates. Whether it’s religious, personal, or misinformation, some people will refuse to wear a mask and get vaccinated.

In Wenatchee, the team has to abide by two new mandates from the Washington state government. According to Wild general manager Bliss Littler, some longtime fans have canceled their season tickets because of the restrictions and mandates. If Wenatchee is any indication, other teams may have lost fans permanently.

One can only hope restrictions are eliminated soon and it will be a great day when fans can attend games without showing proof of vaccination or wearing a mask. It think that’s something everyone can definitely agree on.