Grizzlies, BCHL plot course for normal 2021-22 season

The B.C. Hockey League anticipates no bubbles, quarantines or travel restrictions for its 2021-22 season. It’s perhaps a sign of the times that the league is planning for a normal season. Each team will play 54 games in the BCHL’s 60th-anniversary campaign, beginning Oct. 8 and concluding March 25, followed by the playoffs. The schedule anticipates the re-opening of the Canada-U.S. border and includes the Wenatchee Wild, the lone franchise in Washington state.

“On paper, it looks good,” said Darren Naylor, head coach and GM of the Nanaimo Clippers.

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“It’s exciting to prepare for selection camps, with a schedule in place, and something that has a feel of normalcy to it.”

It’s a clear signal that needed to be sent.

“It will definitely help in recruiting,” said Naylor, whose Clippers will open against the Kings on Oct. 8 at Hap Parker Arena in Powell River.

The BCHL staged five regional bubble seasons without fans during the pandemic in 2021, mostly to get its players exposed to NCAA Div. 1 and NHL scouts. The Victoria Grizzlies won the Island Division crown in the Port Alberni hub.

“There’s a sense of optimism, which includes planning for fans in the buildings in the fall,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon, who club opens Oct. 8 at The Q Centre against the visiting Alberni Valley Bulldogs.

“Our recruits now know they can look forward to a full season.”

Training camps will open Sept. 17. The sense of a kind of renewal and rebirth is reverberating throughout the Island Division.

“This is an absolutely wonderful and exciting announcement that we in the league have worked hard for,” said Shari Paterson, director of the Cowichan Valley Capitals, who open Oct. 9 at home in Duncan against the Bulldogs.

It is the latest start in league history, but that has as much to do with another matter than it does the pandemic and vaccine rollout timeline. The BCHL has left the national body Canadian Junior Hockey League, so does not have to conclude its season and playoffs as early as it used to in order to send its champion to the Centennial Cup national Junior A championship tournament.

“The [BCHL championship] Fred Page Cup is coveted and that’s the goal,” said Didmon.

The BCHL simply points to its alumni record compared to the rest of the CJHL. No other Canadian Junior A league produces more NCAA Div. 1 talent, and eventual pros up to the NHL, as the BCHL, which in 2019-20 surpassed its previous best number of players committed to NCAA Div. 1 schools with 166, up from 151 in 2018-19. Former BCHL Trail Smoke Eaters forward Kent Johnson, now with the University of Michigan Wolverines, is the No. 3-ranked North American skater for the 2021 NHL draft. There were 32 BCHL alumni in the NHL this season. That includes former Grizzlies captain Alex Newhook, selected in the first round of the 2019 NHL draft and now with the Colorado Avalanche, and silver medallist with Canada in the 2021 world junior championship. Newhook was among the 94 BCHL alumni in the 2021 NCAA tournament with 15 of the 16 qualified teams having had at least one former BCHL player on the roster. Fourteen former BCHL players played in the Frozen Four this year in Pittsburgh.

Because it will no longer compete for the Centennial Cup, the BCHL season can start in October rather than training camps and exhibition games in August and regular season in early September as in past seasons, with fans often coming out in shorts, flip-flops and short sleeves.

“There needs to be a chill in the air for hockey,” said Didmon.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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