The BC Hockey League is set to begin its 2020-21 season in early April after receiving conditional approval from the provincial health officer for a safe return to play.
The return-to-play plan includes three to four teams playing in five pod locations around the province – Port Alberni, Chilliwack, Coquitlam, Penticton, and Vernon.
In a Q&A with BCHLNetwork co-founder and managing editor Brian Wiebe, BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb talks about the elation of being approved to play a season, details for the pod scenario, an update on roster composition, and more.
Brian Wiebe: Chris, thanks for joining us, and let me turn it over to you for any opening remarks you’d like to make.
Chris Hebb: We’re all thrilled, we’re all relieved, and there were a lot of cheers echoing around the province last night.
BW: You mentioned COVID-19 testing in the news release announcing approval of the return-to-play plan. What will the testing process be like?
CH: Well, we’re kind of lucky because the vaccine is rolling out and we’re getting to the spring now, so the process will unfold over the next couple of weeks. There will be testing and there is going to be a quarantine period, and we’re just having our chief medical officer work out the details with the PHO as we speak.
BW: Do you have an idea of the number of tests that are likely needed to get through this abbreviated season?
CH: No we don’t, it’s our intention to test our players after they come out of quarantine and hopefully we don’t have to test them again after that.
BW: Who is bearing the cost of the testing?
CH: It’s going to be borne by the league. As you know, we’ve had a very tough year in terms of revenue for our teams, so we have, as a league, decided that this (season) is so important that we’ll be the ones that pick up the bill.
BW: What if one case happened? Is it going to be all over again, or you’re prepared to deal with the situation and still go on?
CH: It’s similar to our COVID-19 safety plan. If we have somebody who has tested positive, they’ll go into isolation, obviously, and then based on what the health authority tells us to do, we’ll take their advice.
BW: The provincial government confirmed the pod locations are Port Alberni, Coquitlam, Chilliwack, Vernon, and Penticton. What was the process in determining which markets would act as pods?
CH: A lot of it (centres) around arena availability because a lot of our teams just aren’t going to have their arenas by that time of the year so that was a big consideration. We also wanted to have the pods separated and not have them concentrated in an area, so we decided to distribute them throughout the province.
At any moment, the PHO could have said, “That’s not a good spot for one”, so there’s been a lot of back and forth (with public health officials).
BW: Is the idea that wherever the pods are located geographically, that’s where the teams will mainly come from?
CH: We’re trying to keep everybody in their regions, and that’s ideal, in some cases we can’t and teams will have to relocate. But yes, what we’re trying to do is keep everybody in their regions and not have a lot of crossing between – especially the health regions.
BW: I wanted to ask a question about the logistics of getting all the players back with their teams and on to the ice. Given that there are still travel restrictions between the US and Canada, is there any plan to deal with American players who went back home and want to return?
CH: If American players are going to come back, they’ll have to follow the protocols as laid out by our federal government and if they’re not allowed into the country, then they’re not going to be able to play.
BW: What plans are there for fans to be able to experience the games?
CH: We’ll have every game streamed on HockeyTV, so we’re all set to go with that. Obviously, there won’t be any fans in the buildings.
BW: As for the broadcasts, will you bring in various broadcast teams? Or is it a situation where one group of production staff and play-by-play talent would follow a certain pod?
CH: The intention is for each of the teams to bring their broadcasters as they generally do, but they will be grouped away from the teams and not travelling with the 30-person cohort each team will have. So it’s going to be a significant separation between those support people and the people on the ice.
BW: What will be the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the league and its teams going forward?
CH: More than ever, we’re going to need financial support. Similar to the Western (Hockey) League, we’re gambling to spend this money to get these kids a season. At the end of the day, the league stepped up and said “We’re willing to do it” but we need the financial support from the provincial government to offset the costs that we’re going to incur. We’re holding hope against hope that is coming.
BW: During her daily briefing on Mar. 2, Dr. Bonnie Henry mentioned she had a number of concerns with the BCHL return-to-play plan as it was at that point. Have those concerns been satisfied since then?
CH: Yeah, they have. A lot of what Bonnie was talking about was being addressed, it’s just most of it hadn’t reached her yet. She’s got a lot on her plate and she cannot be up to speed with what everybody is doing but her staff has done a great job and now she knows exactly what we’re doing.
BW: What does roster composition look like right now as teams are dealing with some of the restrictions?
CH: I think it’s varied. Some teams have had their guys in camp and haven’t lost too many players, some have lost players. There’s no standard roster look, but everybody’s trying to make sure that they have as good a sized roster as they can because we want to go into the pods with as many people as we can that are through the quarantine. So everybody’s scrambling now to put a team together.
BW: What are the concerns as it relates to injuries and having enough players to ice a full lineup?
CH: We’re allowing a roster size of 25, which should give teams some leeway. If they have a massive rash of injuries, then there’s going to have to be something done. We think if we can get players that are a possibility for our rosters into quarantine, then we can obviously put them into the line-up. It’s a little bit of a gamble based on the roster size.
BW: Will the 2021-22 season proceed with a normal start date?
CH: We think that because we’re getting back on the ice now, that unless something really strange happens and we get into a big problem with the recovery from the pandemic and the vaccines don’t get out, we’re shooting to have a normal season next year.
BW: Is there an opportunity for any of the 17 teams to opt out of the shortened season?
CH: Similar to what happened in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, we have given teams 48 hours to determine whether they are going to opt in or opt out. There hasn’t been an indication of any teams opting out at this point.
*NOTE: The Langley Rivermen have since opted out of the season, their decision came after this interview.*
BW: How many games do you expect to play in this shortened season?
CH: We’re targeting to get each team 18 games at this point and if we can squeeze in 20, we will. I’ve had lots of questions about playoffs and the fact is if the restrictions change and things open up, we’ll have a look at whether or not there’s another week where we can do a playoff in an arena or a couple of arenas that are still open (with ice).
BW: Do you have any update on the potential sale of the Nanaimo Clippers from the league’s perspective?
CH: Nope, nothing on that. (Clippers owner) Wes (Mussio) has publicly indicated that the team is for sale, but he indicated that the team was for sale to us for quite some time.
BW: Now that it’s confirmed this season is a go, what’s the overall mood around the BCHL office?
CH: We’re really happy to have an opportunity for the kids to play and also for the fans to see their team. Think about Cranbrook, this was a team that was supposed to have its debut season. They have been waiting for a long time to see the Bucks on the ice, so I’m especially thrilled for (owner) Nathan Lieuwen and everyone in Cranbrook.