Ron Gallo

The Prince George Spruce Kings and the future of junior hockey in the Cariboo

Things continue to change within British Columbia’s junior hockey leagues.

The Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, a Hockey Canada-sanctioned Junior A Tier 2 league, welcomed the Merritt Centennials as an expansion franchise at the end of March. The KIJHL also relocated two teams to the Cariboo region as the Summerland Steam moved to Williams Lake, B.C., and will play as the Mustangs. At the same time, the relocation of the North Okanagan Knights sees them truck to Quesnel, B.C.. There, the team will play as the River Rush.

These relocations change junior hockey in the Cariboo. With KIJHL teams moving into Cariboo markets and the Merritt Centennials’ BCHL franchise shutting down, the Spruce Kings lose a nearby rival in Merritt. Prince George’s closest rival is now the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, who play six-and-a-half hours away.

Over the last few years, there were rumours that the BCHL was interested in expanding to Quesnel. The league even played two Road Show games in Quesnel last November as the Victoria Grizzlies and Cowichan Valley Capitals split two games against each other. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BCHL also explored having the Wenatchee Wild play in Quesnel as the U.S.-Canada border was closed.

With KIJHL teams being placed in Quesnel and Williams Lake, it likely leaves the BCHL out of those markets. Let’s be honest, isolated teams have a hard time operating — regardless of league. The Spruce Kings have wanted another team in Quesnel since at least as far back as 2017 and now that the KIJHL has moved into the Gold Pan City, the Spruce Kings and Millionaires rivalry won’t return since both teams play in separate leagues.

Recently, the Spruce Kings shot down rumours that they would follow the Centennials’ path and leave the BCHL. The Spruce Kings cited increased attendance compared to last season as encouragement of the health of the franchise. Here are my thoughts about the Spruce Kings staying in the BCHL, and the changes with the KIJHL.

To be clear, I don’t doubt the Spruce Kings’ ability to stay in the BCHL. If they want to stay in the league, I wholeheartedly believe they will continue to make it happen. The Spruce Kings have several methods of covering team costs, including their annual Show Home Lottery.

Staying in the BCHL

The Spruce Kings staying in the BCHL is the way things are going – which continues a legacy that started in 1996 when the franchise relocated from New Westminster to Prince George. The league is pledging to eliminate player fees for next season, which will increase financial considerations for every team, whether it is privately or community-owned. For Prince George, it will remain a community-owned franchise. Other teams have taken a different approach.

Last year, the Powell River Kings sought out private ownership and in November 2023, partnered with the Connecticut-based Birch Group.

As a city, Powell River is pretty isolated since it takes two ferries to get there from the Lower Mainland. As a franchise, the Kings have operated in Powell River since 1988 and have been a community-owned team for most of their history. However, it was the search for private ownership that seemingly led to partnering with the Birch Group.

Powell River’s situation has similarities and differences to the Spruce Kings’ situation. It’s an example of a community-owned franchise seeking some form of private ownership to help cover costs. Changing to a private ownership model is something several BCHL teams have done over the years to help with an influx of funding.

KIJHL changes

There have been some big changes in the KIJHL. For starters, there are now six teams within a seven-hour driving distance of Prince George. Previously, the closest KIJHL team to Prince George was the 100 Mile House Wranglers, but now the Mustangs and River Rush have moved into the region.

The KIJHL has extended its reach north and teams from as far south as Spokane, Washington can travel up to the Gold Pan City of Quesnel.

As a member of the KIJHL, at most the River Rush and Mustangs will travel 10-12 hours to play Spokane — likely only once per season, or not at all unless the teams meet in the KIJHL championship final. Even with a long trip to Eastern Washington State, Quesnel, and Williams Lake don’t have to travel to the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island in the KIJHL.

It’s good that junior hockey has returned to Quesnel and Williams Lake. These communities haven’t had that level of hockey in more than 10 years. It may not be the highest level of 16-to-20-year-old players in the province, but it’s still a welcome sight to see the two cities get college and Western Hockey League tracking junior hockey back.

Resurrecting the RMJHL

With the latest franchise movement, the KIJHL is starting to resemble the old Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League, which was a Junior A league in B.C. from 1991 to 1999. It was called the Peace-Cariboo Junior Hockey League from 1975 to 1991. After the league ceased operations, the Creston Valley Thunder and Nelson Leafs joined the KIJHL.

The new Williams Lake team in the KIJHL is taking its Mustangs name from the former RMJHL team, which folded in 1996. The KIJHL has ended up with teams in each of the B.C.-based markets from the final season of the RMJHL. The lone exception is Prince George.

Right now, the Spruce Kings remain in the BCHL and are committed to staying in Canada’s top college-tracking league for the foreseeable future. I have no doubt they can deal with the operating costs. That said, it’s a welcome sign to see junior hockey return to Quesnel and Williams Lake.