The BCHL shook up the hockey world on Monday with news that it was going it alone as an independent league after opting to not renew its agreement with Hockey Canada.
There are far-reaching implications of this move with more likely becoming clear as details are released. BCHL Commissioner Steven Cocker addressed some of them during a Q&A with BCHLNetwork owner and editor-in-chief Brian Wiebe.
The BCHL also made Chief Executive Officer Chris Hebb available for a question-and-answer session after the announcement.
BCHLNetwork: There’s been much speculated about this move, now that it’s happened and the news officially released publicly, what’s the overall feeling from the league?
Chris Hebb: I think it’s been a lot of work because when you go and do something that is this bold, you have to have your ducks in a row. We have certainly done the work, the due diligence, and the preparation to let our Board know what the result of something like this would be. So to have the Board choose is our job, to get them into a situation where they understand the two alternatives and choose which one they prefer.
BN: Was this situation mostly about having the ability to recruit under-18 players from other provinces?
CH: I think that’s a major part of it, but it’s not the only part of it. We think that Junior A hockey has been undervalued in Canada. We don’t think there has been enough support put behind it. College tracking is the trend. This is where a lot of the NHL players are coming from now.
Thirty-three per cent of the NHL is coming from college, so why in Canada, can we not have a league that is doing one heck of a job of creating college commitments be supported as an alternative to Major Junior? We’ve been saying that for years, and now we’re saying if the system will not recognize us in a way that gives us support, then what are we actually getting out of the system?
BN: What are the next steps to have everything ready to go for June 1?
CH: Well, obviously, all of our roster discussions have to take place and we’re well down the road on that. We have to secure our insurance coverage and we’re well down the road on that. We have to make sure that the officials that do our games are comfortable with the fact that we’re not any longer in the system.
There’s a lot of work to be done between now and June 1, but we’re very prepared and we have done our homework and we think that as long as everybody understands that we’re not going away. All we’re doing is saying that the federation that we belonged to, we no longer belong to.
We’re going to work with BC Hockey if they’ll work with us, we’re going to work with Hockey Canada. We’re going to work with Junior B. We’ll work with minor hockey the way we have for 61 years — if they’ll allow us to do. So that’s our perspective on it, it’s just something that’s going to make our league better.
BN: What impact does the move announced today have on players who are returning to your teams next year?
CH: I would imagine some of them are going, “What the heck does this mean?” That’s why all of our coaches have been briefed and they will send them the message. We’ve created a video that simplifies and explains the Canadian system so that people don’t think that we’ve left Mother Earth.
We literally just don’t belong to an association that we once belonged to. And yes, it’s a powerful association, but the BCHL operates independently of that association in most ways (already), other than the regulations. So the league is not going to change, the league is going to be the exact league it is at the end of this season. And in fact, in some cases, it might even be better.
BN: What effect does leaving Hockey Canada have on the Wenatchee Wild, which is the lone BCHL team operating in the United States?
We imagine that USA Hockey will be asking questions of the Wild and saying “What does this mean?” and the ownership in Wenatchee will have to explain exactly what their position is on it. Frankly, we think that the Wenatchee Wild has done a heck of a job in creating a junior hockey environment in Washington State where we now have an NHL team and one day we hope to have collegiate programs.
I would imagine USA Hockey will want to support this franchise, but you never know, maybe there’s something that USA Hockey thinks is wrong with what we’ve decided to do and we’ll deal with it if that’s the case.
BN: How does the BCHL becoming an independent league affect the acquisition of players from Hockey Canada-sanctioned leagues like the Alberta Junior Hockey League or Ontario Junior Hockey League?
CH: It depends on Hockey Canada. Our intention is to recruit the way we’ve always recruited. Yes, there will be the opportunity for 16 and 17-year-olds to come and play in our league without their parents having to change residences, which we’ve never understood. But other than that, I think there’s going to be some pushback from the Hockey Canada-sanctioned leagues to not deal with us.
BN: We’ve heard the Board of Governors’ vote to leave Hockey Canada wasn’t unanimous. What’s the message to those teams who were against it?
CH: All the league office does is put in front of the ownership the options and what the benefits of each option would be. For the majority of our teams, there’s a feeling that there aren’t a lot of advantages to being in the (Hockey Canada) system. The advantages to being out of the system are more than just recruiting 16 and 17-year-olds.
Now we’re creating a tier of college-tracking hockey in Canada, and we think there are going to be more scouts coming and a lot more fans coming because the quality of the hockey is going to definitely go up.
We have a very cohesive Board and it’s a right for everybody to choose to vote with their heart or vote with their mind. I’m wide open to having some dissension and some discussion, I think it makes us stronger because we have to make our arguments more powerful to convey to folks that may not see the way things are going.
At the end of the day, I think that this is a very together group of owners that moves forward with this. They’ve been thinking about it, arguing over it, and debating it for decades. I think it was just time to fish or cut bait, and that’s what we’ve done.
BN: The league has stated the goal of moving away from being pay-to-play within four years. How does that goal affect teams that rely on player fees to help subsidize operating costs?
CH: What we hope is because the league is going to get better and our teams are going to get better because we are asking for standards to be raised on the business side, that there are more people paying attention to the bottom line and generating enough money to operate the team without having to charge players.
For us, we’ve always felt that charging players is not the BCHL. There are leagues around the country that have to do that. We don’t think we should have to charge players because we’re a league that puts a good product on the ice, people come to see it, and we can generate enough revenue at the gate and in sponsorship.
That sponsorship includes the league too, the league has to do a better job of creating revenue that everybody can share. For us, that’s the route rather than, “Oh, I’m just going to charge the players.”
BN: What do you say to people who argue that opening the doors to farther-reaching recruiting could squeeze BC-born players out of the BCHL?
CH: We’ve already dealt with that. There will be a minimum for B.C. players in our league that protects the regular recruiting paths we have within our province. We’re not worried about that and we’re committed to that because this is the BCHL and we are here to develop B.C. kids.
The great thing about B.C. kids at this level is if they’re playing against the best players around, they’re going to get better. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. You’re going to make it into this league, but you’re going to play against better players and then it’s up to you, right?
BN: This is a giant hurdle for the league to overcome in the minds of the Board of Governors who voted for leaving the umbrella of Hockey Canada. What’s next for the league?
CH: We think we can make the league into something that’s never been seen before in Canada. It’s a junior-level, college-tracking league that creates events, that is in the communities, that is not simply mailing it in, that we’re directing all of our resources to grow it and make the player experience better.
We’ve already started doing that with our Road Show event and we’re taking our league Showcase to Seattle next year. We have our Top Prospects and outdoor All-Star Game which will continue and we think there’s something we’re going to do with our postseason eventually once we’ve got everything stable. So this is just going to get better and what we wanted to do was remove the impediments to that growth.
BN: The prospect of playing games against North American Hockey League or United States Hockey League clubs ties in exactly with what you just mentioned. Is there a potential for a playoff-style tournament or series between the leagues?
CH: We would hope so, because why wouldn’t you want to see the best college-tracking hockey come together for an event that is especially Canada versus the US? I mean, at the end of the day, it’s about us having the imagination and being bold enough to go and try and create something new — that’s what we’re trying to do.