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Bulldogs, Grizzlies hit stretch drive of ground-breaking BCHL season

Alberni hosts Victoria on Wednesday
Grizzlies forward Landon Mackie and Bulldogs defenceman Ryan Buckley battle at The Q Centre. The two teams will face each other again Wednesday night in Port Alberni. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST


Times Colonist

In one of those classic ­minor-sports promotions, one breakfast-happy fan will win free rashers for a year tonight at the Alberni Valley Multiplex as the host Bulldogs play the ­Victoria Grizzlies.

The promotional giveaway could be appropriate because the B.C. Hockey League has been bringing home the bacon this season, its first as an independent junior league outside of Hockey Canada’s and B.C. Hockey’s jurisdiction. The move has garnered national attention with a feature article last week in the Globe and Mail detailing how the BCHL’s success may have fractured the very nature of hockey administration in this country.

“It’s been a crazy year,” said Bulldogs president David Michaud.

“I think maybe they ­[Canadian hockey administrations] ­underestimated our resolve to control our own destiny.”

At the heart of the dispute were the differing Hockey Canada recruiting rules allowed between Junior A hockey, which the BCHL was listed as, and the major-junior Canadian Hockey League.

“Without question the talent level of our league has gone up because now we can recruit more freely,” said Michaud.

“Some people questioned it but this has been huge validation for us. For instance this week, 17-year-old Wyatt Blaze from Crofton became our 17th player committed to an NCAA Div. 1 this season program and we’re really proud of that.”

Not that the league had been doing too badly even when its recruiting hands were tied. There were 411 BCHL alumni on NCAA rosters last season, which accounted for nearly one-quarter of all the players in Div. 1. A total of 104 former BCHL players skated in the 2023 NCAA Div. 1 tournament, including 14 on the champion Quinnipiac team.

The BCHL move to go independent this season was further validated when five teams from the Alberta Junior Hockey League this year bolted mid-season from Hockey Canada to join the BCHL.

The Grizzlies, meanwhile, would rather have the two points tonight than the bacon giveaway. The Surrey Eagles, Chilliwack Chiefs, Grizzlies, Bulldogs and Nanaimo Clippers have clinched playoff berths in the Coastal Conference. Now comes the sorting out process of which among them will have home-ice advantage in the first round of the post-season.

Just six points separates second-place Chilliwack from the fifth-place Grizzlies with Victoria having 11 games remaining and the Chiefs 10. The third-place Bulldogs are two points behind the Chiefs with a game in hand and the fourth-place Clippers four points behind Chilliwack with two games in hand. Every point matters as the Grizzlies (24-18-1) travel to Port Alberni tonight to play the Bulldogs (26-16-1) and the Clippers (24-15-3) cross the strait to the Fraser Valley to play the Chiefs (25-14-5).

Surrey (33-7-2) has clinched first place and will have home ice through the Coastal Conference post-season and is one point behind the Penticton Vees in the battle for the overall BCHL regular-season crown.

But anything can happen as attested by Alberni Valley emerging last year from a similar Coastal Conference second pack — the Bulldogs were the Coastal third seed — to win their first conference championship and advance to their first Fred Page Cup BCHL final in franchise history before falling to the annual powerhouse Vees.

“This is really reminiscent of last year when the 2-to-6 Coastal battle was tight, as well,” said Michaud.

“It’s all a matter who gets hot at the right time. Have a good week and you could be in second place. Have a bad week and you are back in fifth or sixth place.”

But only the Bulldogs have the experience of breaking from that second pack to reach the league final last year, packing the Multiplex with fans in the process, as the Bulldogs became a happening storyline in the ­Valley. Ten Bulldogs return from last year’s team and that could hold Alberni Valley in good stead down the regular-season stretch drive into the playoffs.

“Experience is always invaluable,” said Michaud.

“We’ve been through it once. We can take advantage of that and jump on any nerves or uncertainty other teams might have this time of year.”

Grizzlies and GM Rylan ­Ferster, meanwhile, said he’s “happy to be in the chase.”

Ferster added that starting goaltender Oliver Auyeung-Ashton, committed to NCAA Div. 1 Colgate but limited to just 20 games this season due to injury, is now day-to-day and expected to return before the end of the regular season.