Whether an illusion or not, all seemed relatively right with the world on this October weekend. While other jurisdictions report upticks and red zones amid the pandemic, sport continues to re-awaken on the Island. Case-in-point was the Juan de Fuc Recreation Centre on Saturday. The Western Hockey League combine camp took place inside the Q Centre in the afternoon while the bus was parked behind the arena readying to take the Victoria Grizzlies to Duncan for their B.C. Hockey League Island Cup pre-season game against the Cowichan Valley Capitals. Two Vancouver Island Soccer League games were taking place side-by-side on the adjacent fields while youth mini soccer game were being played on the Commonwealth Games lawn bowls pitches next to the arena.
A field-lacrosse tournament, meanwhile, was taking place on the turf infield of the Commonwealth Games velodrome behind the Q Centre. Socially-distanced parents, grandparents and friends ringed all the proceedings.
The shadow of the pandemic, of course, was still lurking. The Victoria Royals coaching staff was helping conduct the WHL combine for Island players ages 12 to 18. The Royals staff would normally have been in the early midst of the 2020-21 WHL season. But the league regular season has been pushed back to Jan. 8. Yet still, it was a sort of confidence vote for the future. The young aspirants taking part in the combine will be around and playing long after COVID has either burned itself out or been stopped in its tracks by vaccines or therapeutics. When you are 13 or 15 years old and being watched by WHL types, you are playing the long game.
“This combine gives us an ability to scout the future,” said Royals GM and head coach Dan Price, as he observed the proceedings at the Q Centre.
It isn’t every day the youthful skaters get to receive instruction from the likes of Royals assistant coaches Doug Bodger, a 19-season former NHLer from Chemainus, J.F. Best, who has international experience on the Danish bench at world junior tournaments, and physiology guru Jeff Compton.
The camp is the last of six held in WHL cities, which have included Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. The staffs of the WHL franchises in each of those cities provided the coaching expertise for the combines.
Even though WHL teams have the western portion of North America well scouted for U-20 talent, it is a very fluid and often spikey age group in term of physical development.
“Kids grow and develop at different rates. There are always diamonds in the rough that are overlooked and we leave no stone unturned,” said Price.
“Potential talent is out there everywhere.”
George Cochrane of Kamloops has managed the WHL combines across Western Canada.
“Obviously, this year is different than any other and we’ve had to change things up, especially in terms of the safety protocols,” he said.
“But the loss of game play in various leagues during the pandemic has opened up other opportunities for individual development that these players normally wouldn’t have had this time of year.”