The BC Hockey League has a return date in sight, which is good news for the Surrey Eagles and their fellow junior ‘A’ teams that have been sidelined due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, the BCHL announced that the 2020/’21 season is planned to start Dec. 1, pending approval from the provincial health office, and that individual teams have been given the option to open training camps as early as Sept. 8, which would give players an extended period to get their legs back underneath them after a months-long layoff.
In a news release, the league said it’s communications with the province and health officials suggested that waiting until December to hit the ice “gives us the best chance at ensuring we have an uninterrupted season, while also maximizing the amount of regular-season games we’ll be able to play,” said Chris Hebb, the BCHL commissioner and Semiahmoo Peninsula resident.
Divisional exhibition games would be able to start once the province moves to Phase 3 of ViaSports’s return-to-play plan, the release notes. The December start date aligns with the NHL’s plan to start its 2020/’21 season, and also gives the BCHL the best opportunity to be able to play in front of fans, even if arenas have strict limits on the numbers of fans that can attend.
“The reality is that, for us to be able to operate, we need to have fans in our buildings,” said Graham Fraser, the chairman of the BCHL Board of Directors.
“It became clear from our discussions with the PHO that the best way to accomplish this would be to delay the start of our season to give them time to assess the effects of a potential second wave of COVID-19 during flu season.”
Nanaimo Clippers GM Tali Campbell told Black Press Media that league governors anticipate that by Dec. 1 they’ll be able to fill arenas to at least 50 per cent capacity.
Though the Dec. 1 start date is still months away, Surrey Eagles general manager Blaine Neufeld said he was excited to see a date and a plan put in place after months of uncertainty.
“There have been countless (phone) calls about what way to go… but things were always changing – some days were really good and you think maybe we’ll start on time, and then other days you’d think, ‘Wow, I don’t know if we’re ever gonna get going. The swings were crazy right at the start,” he said.
“Now we have this date of Dec. 1… and everyone is very excited to get going.”
The Eagles haven’t yet set a timeline for when they would open a training camp, Neufeld said, though he said the longer-than-usual training camp period could be good for all teams, even if some on-ice sessions are informal and only involve players currently in the area.
“I look at it like (Sept. 8) is the start of the off-season, and instead of guys training alone (in their home cities), there is an opportunity to work on skills with the team, and work on team concepts. It could be really good for player development,” he said.
“Coaches always complain they don’t get enough practice time during the season, so now you’ve got this two-month period to get the team ready to go.”
The Eagles – who advanced to the second round of BCHL playoffs last season before play was stopped due to the pandemic – are in a unique position of having most of last year’s roster return for 2020/’21. Neufeld suggested that familiarity will help them when a new season eventually begins.
As well, the layoff – which came just days after a dramatic Game 7 road win over the Chilliwack Chiefs – may actually spur the returning veterans forward this year, as they look to build on last season’s success.
“Their playoff (run) was cut short, but that experience really enabled our kids to believe that they can come out and contend for a championship this year.”