Q&A with BCHL Chief Executive Officer Chris Hebb: Reflecting on rapid midseason expansion into Alberta

The 2023-24 British Columbia Hockey League season was unlike any other in the circuit’s 62-year history. Not only was it the first season of operation independent from Hockey Canada, but it also saw the addition of five teams from Alberta — as expansion clubs — midseason.

On Jan. 20, 2024, the BCHL released a statement that it reached an agreement with the Blackfalds Bulldogs, Brooks Bandits, Okotoks Oilers, Sherwood Park Crusaders, and Spruce Grove Saints to join the league in 2024-25. Then, the Alberta Junior Hockey League removed games from its schedule involving the five teams that had committed to the BCHL.

The BCHL announced on Feb. 1 that Blackfalds, Brooks, Okotoks, Sherwood Park, and Spruce Grove had joined the league immediately. They played a 20-game schedule against each other to round out the regular season before the top four teams held a three-round post-season tournament for the Alberta Cup championship, which was won by the Bandits.

Now that the league office and its teams are preparing for the 2024-25 season, BCHLNetwork owner and editor-in-chief Brian Wiebe chatted with BCHL Chief Executive Officer Chris Hebb to reflect on what went down with the league expanding to Alberta midseason, along with a handful of other topics.

BCHLNetwork: What led to the immediate inclusion of the five former Alberta Junior Hockey League franchises this past season?

Chris Hebb: Some of it goes back to us departing Hockey Canada because none of this could have happened without us leaving Hockey Canada. There was no way that teams could cross the (provincial) border (to play games). I think some of it was also teams around the country watching what happened when we left Hockey Canada and saying, “You know, is that something that would make sense for our league?” As it turns out, we were reached out to by a couple or three teams in Alberta and then it just kind of went from there.

BN: How confident is the league — not only now — but also going into 2024-25, in managing the logistical and operational challenges that might arise from the inclusion of five teams from another province?

CH: We have a good league office, Brian, I know you deal with them all the time. I think Steve Cocker as a Commissioner has an unbelievable capacity, work ethic, intelligence, and all the knowledge to be able to pull this off. We have support from Brad Lazarowich now, who is our VP of Hockey Operations, and Sean Robertson, who’s joined us (as Coordinator of Hockey Operations). We strongly believe that we’ll be able to integrate these teams without much trouble.

BN: How does the inclusion of these new teams enhance the overall competitiveness of the BCHL?

CH: Well, they’re attractive options now for players coming from the States, players coming from outside of Canada, (and) players coming from other provinces. I think what’s going to happen is, when you have quality programs like these five, they’re going to attract more players — and that’s what’s happened with the BCHL. In general, we just have a better level of play because we can draw from the globe, we have a limited number of Europeans, and that will stay the same. At the end of the day, we’re a pretty high-end college-tracking league that attracts good talent.

BN: Would you say that the expansion into Alberta complements the league’s objectives in terms of player development?

CH: For sure. We want as many players to use their skills in the BCHL to get to college as much as possible and now we’ve got five more teams where that is possible. So at the end of the day, we measure ourselves on NCAA Division I commitments and I think we’ll have a lot more now than we’ve ever had.

BN: Under Hockey Canada regulations, officials in Hockey Canada-sanctioned leagues are unable to officiate in the BCHL because it’s non-sanctioned. Where did the officials come from for the games involving the five Alberta teams?

CH: Some officials worked in independent hockey in Alberta already, and some of our officials traveled there and did games. We have a pretty large complement of officials who decided that they wanted to be BCHL officials and not live with the excluding that happened from BC Hockey and Hockey Canada.

BN: What potential economic benefits do you anticipate for both the league and the Alberta communities involved here?

CH: We think more people will continue to come to the games. I mean, in the first year, there’s going to be a curiosity factor. I think there’s going to be a recognition that this is different. (People will think) “I’m getting to see high-end teams every time my team’s at home.”

Some of those teams were getting bored, to be perfectly honest, so I think there’s going to be the benefit of seeing high-end hockey and I think that’s going to bring people into the arenas. From the perspective of league sponsorship, I think having an Alberta contingent is an attractive option with some of our corporations thinking that the footprint is expanding, so I think that there is that. At the end of the day, the question is can we – with this 21-team league – move into other forms of revenue generating that we haven’t been able to before?

BN: When this all went down earlier this year, those teams were four of the five top teams in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Is that something that when you were looking at these teams coming in — stability on the ice was just as important as stability off the ice?

CH: We’ve established a scorecard, a standards format for all of our teams. The first thing that anybody has to do to join the BCHL is we have to see what their standards look like and the Alberta teams had to meet our standards. Are standards that are going to be raised? Well, yeah, there are a couple of teams coming in that we think will make a big difference and at the end of the day, have a a real desire to get better. (They have) a real desire to invest and they’re not passengers – they will be teams that will help drive our league to the next level.

BN: How does the league measure the success of this rapid expansion in terms of the impact on players, fans, and just overall growth?

CH: We always use the number of college commitments that we can generate as a measurement because getting these kids to college using their hockey skills is what’s important to us. Not all of them are going to make the NHL as we know — it’s going to be less than one percent — but what about that other 99 percent? How do we affect their lives? How do we get them into a college environment that might take them down a path that becomes their career? Maybe they meet somebody in the dorm whose dad is a lawyer and decide that’s what they want to do. It’s all about getting opportunities for kids based on their hockey talent and the more of them that we get into our league that get Division I commitments, the better we’re going to feel.

BN: There are BCHL detractors who say players who come with a college commitment in hand shouldn’t equate to those who earned a college commitment while playing in the league. What’s your response to that?

CH: We don’t look at it that way. A lot of those players who already have college commitments, their coaches have said “Go to the BCHL because it’s a good league, that’s where I want you to play.” They wouldn’t be in our league if those coaches didn’t think we had a good league — we’ve never claimed that we developed them. We’ve just said that this is the number that comes out of our league every year, and when you have a stat like last year where close to 25 percent of Division I rosters came through the BCHL, I guess we do get to brag a little bit.

BN: Getting back to the situation with the five Alberta teams looking ahead to 2024-25. How will travel be addressed to make sure that teams aren’t overextending themselves physically, mentally, and financially?

CH: Well, one of the things we’re going to do is come up with the number of games per season that won’t overextend things. Right now, we have 54 and I don’t see it growing. I don’t think our board wants the number to grow. It’s going to give us weekdays for these kids to travel, do their studies, and rest up, and hopefully, we don’t turn this into too stressful a schedule for them. The beauty of not being in Hockey Canada is we don’t have to cram our schedule in so we can go to the Centennial Cup. We can play hockey for a long time. We went to the end of May this year and we haven’t had to squish our season into making sure that we have this path to the Centennial Cup.

BN: We saw that with the 20 games scheduled for the five Alberta teams. Their season in the AJHL would have ended a month earlier than the BCHL schedule ended for them. Does the league enjoy having that autonomy over the schedule?

CH: Yeah, there were so many factors in leaving Hockey Canada last year, and the schedule flexibility was one of them. We were forced to play hockey in September in British Columbia. I get it in Quebec, Ontario, and the Maritimes, where winter is close to setting in at that time of year. Here in B.C., we were asking people to come and watch our games in the middle of a bright, sunny 25-degree day. We have the advantage now of being able to accordion our schedule in a way that makes sense to us.

BN: How does the same principle apply to the Alberta-based teams weather-wise when it comes to drawing in fans?

CH: In terms of weather, Alberta is not all that different than B.C. at that time of the year, so those teams are likely to have the same advantage.

BN: How freeing was it to know that the BCHL — as an independent league — could offer the opportunity for the five Alberta teams to join right away, without all the hoops regulatory-wise that you would have to go through otherwise?

CH: Yeah, it would not have happened if we were still part of Hockey Canada. I mean, we did have expansion into the States with Wenatchee in 2015, but Hockey Canada approved the Wild’s participation. What we’ve done now is we’ve reached further east into Canada, as opposed to adhering to these regions created by Hockey Canada. These branches are protectionist and now we’ve got kids coming to us from all over the country because they’re going to have a high-end development experience.

From the perspective of Hockey Canada, I think they probably look at it and think it was an unintended consequence. We want all Canadians to have great development experiences, but when those rules get put in place — and that’s what we are asking for — let’s have a look at these rules. Why is this residential restriction on 16-and-17-year-olds moving so important? Now we’re doing it our way and maybe Hockey Canada says, “Let’s have a look at that now.”.

BN: Is it empowering to know that in one fell swoop, you said on Feb. 1, “Sure, these five Alberta teams are in our league now?”

CH: You know, we were just happy for the players. The thing that motivated us to move as quickly as we did and motivated those five teams to move as quickly as they did was they had 125 16-to-20-year-olds sitting there at the midpoint of their season not being able to play. The mental health issues associated with that, plus what their parents were going through, what their advisors were going through, let alone the fans of these teams and their staff. We needed to get those players back on the ice and that was job one.