Whenever the puck drops on the 2020-21 BC Hockey League season, it will feature a new look for the league. For starters, the Cranbrook Bucks were introduced as an expansion franchise, bringing the league to a total of 18 teams. With that came a necessary realignment of it’s teams into two new-look conferences.
#BCHL Board of Governors approve realignment ahead of the 2020-21 season.
— BC Hockey League (@GoBCHL) February 3, 2020
At the same time, the league announced it would reduce it’s regular season schedule from 58 to 54 games. Then, like the rest of the world, the BCHL was struck with an enormous amount of adversity.
On March 12, the COVID-19 global pandemic caused the cancellation of what was left in the 2019-20 season. At that time, the BCHL had completed the first round of its Fred Page Cup playoffs and were set to begin round two. Instead, players and coaches went home, and teams began trying to navigate a coronavirus impacted world.
A quote from BCHL Commissioner Chris Hebb on today's decision by Hockey Canada to suspend operations across the country until further notice. pic.twitter.com/AFg7lwICvh
— BC Hockey League (@GoBCHL) March 13, 2020
Since then, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride for the league, and each of its member clubs. Months and months of work have been put into determining when this season can start, and what it will look like. This article is a look at each of the moving parts during this busy offseason, and an examination into how they affect the Bucks’ inaugural BCHL season.
The Bucks join the Interior Conference
As part of the BCHL’s geographical realignment, the Bucks joined the new-look Interior Conference. The Bucks were joined by another newcomer to the Interior, the Prince George Spruce Kings, who moved over from the old Mainland Division. The Bucks and Spruce Kings join the seven teams that had previously existed as the Interior Division. The remaining four teams from the Mainland Division join the five Island Division teams and form the Coastal Conference. All said and done, here is how the pair of nine-team conferences look going forward:
Obviously, Cranbrook’s cross-Kootenay counterparts, the Trail Smoke Eaters, immediately become the Bucks’ arch-rival. Cranbrook could also quickly build strong rivalries with Okanagan teams, such as Penticton, Vernon, West Kelowna, and even Salmon Arm. Contributing to this is likely the potential for home-and-home multiple game weekends against those teams.
Of course, another big factor in rivalries is playoff matchups. Under the league’s new format, eight of the nine teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. This means that while the last place team sits out, the eight that battled against each other just to get in will take it one step further. After playing against teams within their conference all season long, they will then matchup in best-of-seven series’ against some of these teams.
As for Coastal Conference foes, the Bucks will likely see each team twice during the regular season. The two-game season series allows each team to have one home game against each cross-conference opponent.
Travel in the BCHL
Having a province-wide junior hockey league obviously comes with its share of time spent on the road. This will be especially true for the Bucks, being the easternmost team in the league. While they do have a few opponents in close enough proximity to make the trip in a night, they could see some long road trips to endure.
— Brian Wiebe (@Brian_Wiebe) January 30, 2019
These road trips would include games in both conferences, as Interior opponents such as Merritt and Prince George would likely be included in a road trip. Road games against Coastal opponents would come in the form of a multi-game road trip. The Bucks would spend three or four days on the road and play a string of games against teams on the mainland or the island. Likewise, those Coastal teams would also head out east on a swing through Penticton, Trail, and Cranbrook, for example, to complete the season series.
Come playoff time, the Bucks would spend the first three rounds playing within the Interior Conference. This would mean, for the most part, they could experience fairly light travel in between game days. As long as the distance between the two teams allows, there are usually two off days in a playoff series for teams to travel back-and-forth. Games one and two would be back-to-back in one city, then a travel day, then games three and four. Should the series require five or more games, there would be a travel day after game four, and then games five, six, and seven would typically be on three consecutive days.
— BC Hockey League (@GoBCHL) February 24, 2020
The exception to this for the Bucks would be playing a team like Prince George. The Spruce Kings’ recent playoff road trips have all featured unique schedules and travel tactics, being that Prince George is so remotely located.
The effects of COVID-19 on the regular season
In July, the BCHL announced its tentative plan to start the 2020-21 season in early December. In the media release, commissioner Chris Hebb gave his explanation on why this seemed like the best idea for now.
“The Provincial Health Office has indicated to us that waiting until December gives us the best chance at ensuring we have an uninterrupted season, while also maximizing the number of regular season games we’ll be able to play.”
— BC Hockey League (@GoBCHL) July 17, 2020
The plan included a full 54-game schedule, which has yet to be released, and also includes a full playoff schedule. The league was hopeful that this type of season would also align with fans being allowed in the arenas. The target is to have 25 percent capacity allowed in each arena, to help teams bring in revenue and cover costs.
“The reality is that, for us to be able to operate, we need to have fans in our buildings,” said Graham Fraser, Chairman of the BCHL Board of Directors.
The announcement included an option for teams to hold an extended training camp from September to November, which would include regular on-ice activities.
Earlier this month, the league announced it’s board of governors had also approved an alternative plan. This alternate plan would ensure the season would still go on, even if the 25 percent attendance in arenas could not be met.
BCHL approves alternative scenario to guarantee a 2020-21 season
— BC Hockey League (@GoBCHL) September 11, 2020
Instead, the league would use a pay-to-play model for 2020-21, using player fees, along with sponsorships, to help cover costs. The schedule would be reduced from a 54 game regular season, to 30-40 games played within four-team cohorts, with significantly less travel. The cohorts of four teams could be alternated during the season, with a required 14-day quarantine period between each.
Extended training camp and exhibition schedule
Recently, the BC Hockey League unveiled it’s official exhibition schedule, and it shows us what the alternate plan could look like. Fans are not allowed in arenas for any games, and it includes teams playing in cohorts of four. There are over 100 games in the exhibition schedule, including a couple of mini-tournaments.
— Brian Wiebe (@Brian_Wiebe) September 18, 2020
One cohort sees Victoria, Nanaimo, Cowichan Valley, and Alberni Valley compete with each other for the Island Cup. On November 8, Cowichan breaks off from the other four and begins playing an exhibition series exclusively with Powell River.
The four mainland teams – Coquitlam, Chilliwack, Langley, and Surrey – form another cohort during the exhibition season.
Penticton, West Kelowna, Vernon, and Salmon Arm form another cohort and will compete for the Okanagan Cup.
The Bucks have been grouped up with their Kootenay rivals from Trail, as well as with Merritt and Prince George. Despite the great distance between some of the cities in the cohort, it allows the Okanagan teams to stick together. The Bucks will play a total of 12 games in the preseason. Nine of their exhibition games are against the nearby Smoke Eaters. They also play Prince George twice, and Merritt once, with each of those games at home.
Our exhibition schedule is here!! Be sure to get your @MyHockeyTV subscription so you don’t miss out on any of the action! Use the code BCHLBUCKS20 to get $80 off when you sign up! This offer expires September 25th. #jointheherd pic.twitter.com/vokfPjEtNG
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) September 19, 2020
The one outlier from the exhibition season is the Wenatchee Wild, which cannot yet cross the border into Canada. Although nothing is finalized as of yet, the exhibition schedule gives a good indication of what the Bucks first season could look like.