Q&A with BCHL Chief Executive Officer Chris Hebb: BCHL produces document to modernize Canadian junior hockey

In April 2021, the BC Hockey League announced its withdrawal from the Canadian Junior Hockey League, which is the association of nine junior A hockey leagues and 118 teams across Canada.

There were many questions and few answers regarding the BCHL’s decision to remove itself from the CJHL, with many rumours flying about the events leading up to the voluntary withdrawal and the overall reasoning behind it.

Then on Sept. 26 of this year, the BCHL released a 36-page document outlining how its executive committee and league office feels the Canadian junior hockey system can be improved.

In a Q&A with BCHLNetwork co-founder and managing editor Brian Wiebe, BCHL Chief Executive Officer Chris Hebb talks about why the league decided to go public with their proposal, what the reaction has been, and what the future could hold for the BCHL as it relates to the CJHL and Hockey Canada, and more.

BCHLNetwork: You’ve sent the document to Hockey Canada, BC Hockey, and the Governance Review Committee overseeing the examination of Hockey Canada’s structure and leadership. Has there been any response yet?

Chris Hebb: We did get a response from Hockey Canada that they’ve forwarded it to various bodies – the CJHL, CHL, branches, and those types of things, but no response to it other than having it forwarded to other governing agencies.

BN: Has the document to modernize the Canadian junior hockey system generated the reaction you expected from the public?

CH: Well, what the document is meant to do is educate, we’re not trying to make big headlines with it. It’s really about people getting to understand what kind of hockey is played in the BCHL and why we think it’s so valuable.

I think there’s probably been a group of folks out there who don’t really understand the difference between us and Major Junior. Our intention is to educate the public as to why we are different and why we think there should be two paths of development in hockey in Canada.

BN: What’s the reaction been to the document on the media side of things?

CH: We’ve had good coverage. We’ve had television coverage, and we’ve had written coverage. We want people to read the white paper itself because that’s where you’ll get the education.

It’s very difficult to take a 30-plus page document and distill it into something that fits into a web story, or a two-minute TV spot, so what we’re hoping is that the media just triggers people to go and find this document and really understand the jewel that the BCHL is, and why it’s different, and why it needs to be supported by Hockey Canada.

BN: Is there one key point to emphasize from the document?

CH: There is. What we think is when it comes to developing young 16 to 20-year-old hockey players in our country, there has been too much emphasis on one side of the story, which is Major Junior.

Don’t get me wrong, Major Junior is a fabulous path for development, but we also have a second path in this country that really hasn’t been supported the way it should be, and that is for Canadians to be going to college in the U.S.

Every other sport does it – volleyball, basketball, golf – so why is it that the support isn’t there for hockey players who choose to take the college route? The message that we’re trying to get across is that the regulations that are in place, whether they were intended to do so or not, create a barrier for a young 16 or 17-year-old to go and pursue a college hockey career over going to Major Junior. We think they should have both methods of development made very clear by Hockey Canada and supported by Hockey Canada.

BN: Do you think, by virtue, those methods of development should also be supported by the provincial branches of hockey?

CH: Absolutely. The branches should, if they are there to develop the players in their province, be saying, “Look, there are two paths.”

Major Junior is a great path for some of our kids, but this college path is a good one too. If you’re looking at the NHL, 33 percent of the players in the NHL now have come through college and we both know, 25 years ago, it was like two percent.

So it’s the trend and what we want is for the branches and Hockey Canada to make it very clear to these young players and their parents that there are two paths.

BN: If Hockey Canada makes the BCHL’s proposed changes, is there a world where the BCHL rejoins the CJHL?

CH: We’re looking at the system, accepting the fact that it can get better. We’ve said all along that if the CJHL wants to be an agent of change, and treat these young athletes in a way that’s going to develop them and not exploit them, we’re very happy to be a member of the CJHL.

We have found that when we put our ideas forward, the CJHL does not see eye to eye with the BCHL, and so it was hypocritical of us to operate within that environment. It was us supporting something we didn’t believe in. I would love the CJHL to come back and say, “Look, what can we do to modernize the game, and what are the things that you guys see that could work nationwide.”

We hope that’s what happens, we hope Hockey Canada does that, we hope the branches do that, and we hope there is a review, but all we can do is put our best foot forward and hope that people understand that we’re not trying to destroy the system, we’re trying to improve it.

BN: Do you see a situation where there is a new tier of league created to represent the junior A leagues and teams across the country that aren’t pay to play?

CH: That was one of the things we took to the CJHL. We said, “You guys have over 135 teams across the country and they’re not operating at the same level, and it’s ridiculous to say that they are.” And yet, everybody gets treated exactly the same.

What we felt, strongly, was that there should be an elite level of junior A in this country and as part of that, these elite kids should not be paying to play. They’re just going to college, they’re not a group that should be exploited, they’ve spent all this money over all these years to get to this level and we feel that when you get to an elite level like that, you do not pay to play hockey in this country.

BN: If Hockey Canada doesn’t respond or make the proposed changes, how will BCHL teams approach recruiting out-of-province U18 players?

CH: We think the system can be changed from within, we do. We really think these players coming to the BCHL should not be a problem, it should be something that is promoted through regulation and say, “Look, if you’re a really good Ontario-based kid and you’re 16 or 17, rather than have you leave and go to the United States and play in the USHL, we’re going to loosen the regulations to allow you to play in another province that has a better opportunity for you.”

We expect that there’s going to be some reasonable exploration of that idea and if there isn’t, it obviously leaves us in a very tough situation because we are doing what we’re doing so that Canadian kids can stay in their own country and get the best development model possible and maintain their (NCAA) college eligibility.

BN: There are certain hoops that out-of-province players under the age of 18 and their families have to jump through now to come to BC and play in the BCHL. If the BCHL’s proposed changes aren’t made, would things stay at the status quo?

CH: They do come to play in the BCHL, but their parents do have to go through a lot of hoops. They have to change residence and families have to uproot. It’s ridiculous that has to happen in order for somebody to pursue their dream within their own country.

What would it sound like if a ballerina from Ontario who is 16 years old and at the top of their class who said, “I want to go to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet because that’s the best development experience in my pursuit in this country.” and they were told, “No, you can’t until you’re 18.”

The only thing where that happens is in hockey. That’s what’s crazy about this and the rules need to change.

BN: Why do you think there is hesitancy from the CJHL member leagues and teams to jump on board with what the BCHL is proposing?

CH: I don’t know, you’d have to ask them because we tried desperately to have that conversation. What is wrong with kids being able to move out of their branch so that they can pursue their dream at 16 or 17 years old? We still don’t have an answer back that makes any sense to us.

BN: One thing to consider is that the flipside could literally be true. There could be, for example, a player from British Columbia who looks at an opportunity in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, and right now, if he’s under 18, he can’t leave BC to go east.

CH: That doesn’t make any sense to us either. If you have, within your own country, a better development opportunity in another province, the branches shouldn’t be standing in the way, they should be celebrating the fact that we’ve got these kids staying in Canada and not going and pursuing their dream in the United States. That’s what doesn’t make sense.

BN: Do you think the issues brought up in the document could be revisited in future years?

CH: I think that any white paper, which is meant to be a public document, is there to open discussion. We have tried desperately to open a discussion with Hockey Canada, with the CJHL, with whoever pulls the strings, and at the end of the day, this was the only way we could get our thoughts out publicly.

I would much prefer that all of this was happening behind closed doors, but there was nobody listening and so we feel very strongly that there’s time now for us to have a review of the structure behind the development of junior hockey in Canada.

BN: It’s mentioned in the white paper that there was communication with the Western Hockey League in the past and the Alberta Junior Hockey League was involved in the discussions at one point. Are there teams in the CJHL that agree with what the BCHL is saying in the white paper?

CH: We think there are, and it’s very difficult for those teams to come forward because the majority of the leagues in the CJHL likely don’t agree with our position. It takes courage to do what we’ve done. It takes courage to say, “We really think there’s a better system that can be created.” and we’re not just going to stand by and allow what’s always been to rule the day.

Change is something that Hockey Canada would admit it needs, so why is that because change is coming from one of its members – a member that’s been in existence for 60 years – we’re not considered somebody that should have a say?

BN: With the seat at the table that the WHL had in the discussions last year, being the representation from Major Junior, was there any willingness to support or, at the very least, discuss what the BCHL is proposing?

CH: At the very first meeting we had, it became pretty clear that the system is the system and that’s what Major Junior would support. Maybe given the fact that there have been four years of change and maybe they’ve listened to some of the things we’ve got to say, they might (look at it closer now).

They might go, “It’s pretty tough to buck the trend. When 33 percent of the NHL is now kids who came through college, why wouldn’t we want to support a system like that? Unless it’s going to hurt our business.”

At the end of the day, Hockey Canada’s job is not to protect businesses, it’s to develop players.

BN: By publishing this document publicly, is there any fear of repercussion from Hockey Canada beyond what has already happened from leaving the CJHL, like BCHL players not being allowed to participate in the national junior A championship and World Junior A Challenge?

CH: We didn’t know what the repercussions would be. We always go into these things hoping that all we’re going to do is have a discussion. We’re not going in there saying, “You have to change these rules, etc…”

Let’s have a discussion about why these rules exist, why they were implemented in the first place, and what are the ramifications of them today. All we’re asking for is a discussion and that, to me, is something any member of Hockey Canada should be afforded.

BN: What do you say to someone who suggests this white paper document is entirely self-serving to the BCHL?

CH: It’s not self-serving to the BCHL, but it is self-serving to players. That’s the way we look at it. This is a way to revamp the system to have more Canadian kids get better development opportunities and we don’t know why that isn’t something that should be supported by our national federation.