B.C.'s plans for mass vaccination offers Island sports a way forward

B.C.’s mass vaccination timeline, set to run from April to September, was watched closely by those in sports when it was unveiled Friday.

“We’ll have some types of our normal lives back again in the summer. But back to full interactions of everyone being together are not likely until the fall,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

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So things are looking brighter for the Royal Victoria Marathon on Oct. 10.

It likely also heralds a close-to-normal start to the 2021-22 hockey season in the fall for the Victoria Royals of the WHL and the Island Division teams in the BCHL, but salvaging anything of this winter junior hockey season appears unlikely.

If summer sports aren’t necessarily in a bubble in pandemic-speak, they may be on the bubble in the old sporting sense that means 50-50 chance. Premier John Horgan said Friday he would like nothing better than to be watching live lacrosse games this summer. But “will he be watching them?” is the question.

“We have to plan for a number of contingencies,” said Chris Welch, GM of the Victoria Shamrocks of the Western Lacrosse Association. “As time goes on, it will become more clear. It’s too early to say. We will continue to plan.”

One thing is already certain, however, for gate-driven leagues such as the WLA.

“We can’t go forward with a season if it means zero attendance allowed,” said Welch. “We might be able to with reduced attendance. It’s something we will have to take a close look at.”

Soccer’s Canadian Premier League is professional, so has some leeway in the matter. Pacific FC is hoping for a graduated return to live attendance at Westhills Stadium (to be renamed Starlight Stadium) as the CPL has scheduled the start to its 2021 pro soccer season for the Victoria Day long weekend May 22-24.

“We have models for zero, 25 per cent, 50 per cent, 75 per cent and 100 per cent attendance,” said Rob Friend, CEO and GM of Pacific FC.

Friend said the combined national vaccine rollout timeline — other provinces are expected to mirror the one announced by B.C. — is suggesting a scenario of limited attendance to start the CPL season, increasing to fuller venues being allowed by the end of the season in the fall.

“We’re prepared for the worst. Anything else is a bonus,” he said. “Nothing will make me happier than seeing fans back at games. I believe there will be a pent-up demand for normalcy and sport is a big part of that.”

While the WLA is provincial and the CPL national, baseball’s West Coast League has franchises in B.C., Washington and Oregon, and must contend with the closure of the Canada-U.S. border. The WCL has released a schedule of full cross-border season play beginning in early June.

“We lost the 2020 season and it’s beyond comprehension that we could lose a second consecutive,” said Jim Swanson, GM and managing partner of the Victoria HarbourCats and expansion Nanaimo Night Owls.

“It’s not prudent for us to make any decisions [about cancellation] this far out. We remain hopeful of playing.

“I would like to see the vaccine rollout quicker. With other vaccines on the horizon, the announced timeline could be more on the cautious side.”

On the issue of spectators, Swanson said: “We can’t play [financially] with zero attendance, but we can certainly make room for fans safely spaced apart — and they are outdoor venues [Royal Athletic Park and Serauxmen Stadium].”

The Victoria Mariners and Eagles, Parksville Royals and Nanaimo Pirates have scheduled Island-only play from April 5 to May 23 with hopes of province-wide games in the B.C. Premier Baseball League to follow.

There are two notable one-off events on the Island this summer. The International Olympic Committee and Japanese government and organizing committee pushed back hard this weekend on a report about cancellation of the Tokyo Games and remain adamant they will happen this summer.

That means the Olympic basketball qualifying tournament from June 29 to July 4 in Victoria would be needed and go ahead. Whether fans are allowed into Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre would depend on the health guidelines at that time.

Layritz Park was re-awarded the Canadian Little League baseball championship this year for Aug. 5-14 after last year’s cancellation. Whether the planned 3,000 temporary bleacher seats are installed will depend on gathering sizes allowed at that time. The Canadian champion advances to the Little League World Series Aug. 19 to 29 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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