The impact of the BCHL leaving Hockey Canada on WHL prospects

For the first time, June 1 presents an interesting decision for B.C. Hockey League players. Decisions on their hockey future need to be made, and those decisions will help shape the course of their hockey careers.

These decisions will have an effect on the Western Hockey League as well as the BCHL. For the WHL, players who were drafted by their clubs will need to make the decision about their NCAA eligibility or WHL eligibility sooner rather than later.

In some cases, players that choose the BCHL route for their junior hockey destination are NCAA locks or have high hopes they can go the collegiate route. The best players in the mix often head to BCHL teams before landing a scholarship to their chosen NCAA school. Others play in the BCHL to be seen by college scouts to earn an NCAA commitment — it’s why the BCHL Showcase is such an important event.

For others, the BCHL offers a chance to play at an elite level, now with players from across Canada, before career or schooling decisions have to be made. Some of those players who were selected in the WHL Prospects Draft didn’t crack a WHL team’s roster as 16-year-olds and came to the BCHL in hopes of improving their game. A by-product could be an improvement in their stock with the WHL club and an increased potential of being inserted into the roster in the future.

In 2022-23, 18 BCHL skaters and seven goaltenders previously played WHL games. These players are ineligible for NCAA play due to the WHL being recognized as a professional league. Of those 25 players, 15 players are still eligible to play junior hockey — in the BCHL or WHL.

Several are unlikely to return to the WHL as 2003-born players due to the league’s limit of allowing only three per team, but there are a handful of 2005 and 2006-born players who could find their way back to the WHL. To maintain eligibility, one could surmise that the WHL teams who hold their rights will want them to play in Hockey Canada-sanctioned leagues so they can be brought up at any time during the regular season and playoffs as an affiliate.

There will also be more pressure applied inadvertently to players who were selected in the WHL Prospects Draft. Once a player has stepped foot on BCHL ice after Sept. 30, they aren’t eligible to join to a WHL roster unless BC Hockey and Hockey Canada grant an exception following an appeal.

There were 84 skaters and nine goaltenders who played BCHL games in 2022-23 and were also WHL Prospects Draft selections. Of those, 17 are 2006-born players and a further 18 are 2005-born players. On both sides, there are examples of players who could stick in the BCHL, head to the WHL, or sign with a Hockey Canada-sanctioned team with support from the WHL team.

Several of the top 2005-born players have already committed to NCAA schools, so there is little chance of them reporting to the WHL teams that drafted them.

An example of this is 2006-born forward Coco Armstrong. He was selected in the seventh round of the 2021 WHL Prospects Draft by the Spokane Chiefs. Armstrong played 50 games for the Coquitlam Express, earning 11 goals and 16 assists as a rookie in 2022-23.

With the BCHL becoming a non-sanctioned league, do the Chiefs and Armstrong work on signing a deal sooner rather than later? Or does Armstrong stay with the Express, hoping to land a college commitment?

2006-born forward Luke Cozens played two games in the BCHL this past season as an affiliate player for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. Is the BCHL on his radar despite the fact that BC Hockey and Hockey Canada won’t allow him to play in a non-sanctioned league and get into games with a WHL club?

He is a signed draft pick by the Lethbridge Hurricanes and suited up in one game with them already. His brother Dylan, who is a star for the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres, also played for the Hurricanes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a player like 2004-born forward Cade Littler. He is not committed to a school for the fall and is an NHL draft pick of the Calgary Flames. Will the Flames counsel him to leave the BCHL or be okay with him playing another season with the Wenatchee Wild if he is not ready for professional hockey?

The Edmonton Oil Kings hold his WHL rights and can trade him to a contending team if the Flames prefer for him to play in the WHL. He had 29 goals and 39 assists in 51 regular season games with the Wild in 2022-23.

A news release from the BCHL notes that teams are permitted to have a maximum of two former Canadian Hockey League players of any age on their roster for the 2023-24 season. Ex-CHL players who were on BCHL rosters as of Jan. 10, 2023, will be grandfathered in.

Also, there is a chance some of the 70 skaters and goaltenders who played in the BCHL in 2022-23 and were selected in this year’s USHL Draft teams may head to that league.

It’s an uncertain time in the Canadian junior hockey landscape with the BCHL becoming an independent league. It’s realistic to wonder if the move causes more potential WHL players from playing in the league.

It is almost certain that WHL teams won’t want their young players and prospects to develop in the BCHL after the Sept. 30 cut-off date as BC Hockey and Hockey Canada won’t permit said players to go back up to the WHL until the following season.