In-limbo BCHL hopeful of return to play

Victoria Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon noted this is the time of year he would normally be preparing for the B.C. Hockey League stretch drive and playoffs. But of all the things that can be said about this season, normal isn’t one of them.

“It’s a strange feeling. It’s almost March,” said Didmon.

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The BCHL has been left to try and read the tea leaves based on events happening around it. Those include the Alberta Junior Hockey League having been granted permission to return to play. And there could be a decision this week regarding a season for the B.C. Division of the Western Hockey League, the last of the WHL divisions without a start date.

“We are hopeful of some news, too,” said Didmon, about the BCHL.

“We’ve just been taking it a day at a time. It’s a matter of patience.”

Provincial health minister Adrian Dix said a 65-page proposal to play has been submitted to the B.C. government by the WHL.

“It is being reviewed by officials of the provincial health office,” said Dix.

“We are working on the plan and will be responding to the plan soon. I expect they will have recommendations around that to Dr. Henry [this] week. And then we will be responding and working with the WHL.”

Provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, addressing the issue last week, said she was hopeful “we’ll be able to salvage a season come March or April.”

The BCHL also has a proposal before the provincial health officer.

“I am feeling optimistic,” said Didmon.

“Alberta gave the AJHL the go-ahead and we should be following suit. We have been fulfilling all the health protocols in training.”

One issue is the BCHL trade deadline Thursday. That is the last day to deal players to the AJHL, in order to do them a favour and let them play this season, should the BCHL not play.

“That date is looming,” acknowledged Didmon.

BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb and Grizzlies governor Ron Walchuk could not be reached for comment.

“We know any potential season will be played with no fans and in empty rinks,” added Didmon.

To make up for that in Alberta, the provincial government on Monday announced an online 50/50 draw with proceeds to be shared by Alberta’s five WHL teams and the 15 AJHL teams to help offset revenues lost because of the pandemic and the suspension of play.

“As largely fan-dependent leagues, the future of many of our junior hockey teams is in jeopardy in Alberta,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robison, in a statement.

“The Jackpots For Junior Hockey 50/50 will help.”

According to the WHL release, the five WHL teams contribute $56 million annually to the Alberta economy and employ 1,000 full time and part-time workers. The AJHL also contributes $56 million annually to the Alberta economy, added the release. WHL and AJHL teams average more than one million fans per year.

“Protecting the lives and livelihoods of Albertans includes ensuring that junior hockey remains a social and economic driver in our province,” said Leela Sharon Aheer, Alberta minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women, in announcing the changes to provincial gaming policy which allowed the junior hockey online 50/50 to proceed.

The B.C. Division, which includes the Victoria Royals, is the only WHL division not yet set to return.

The government of Saskatchewan gave the go-ahead for the five teams in that province, and two from Manitoba, to play in a single-site bubble in Regina beginning March 12.

That follows earlier announcements that the five Alberta teams will begin play Friday, in a travel format with no fans in the venues, and the five-team U.S. Division will start on March 19 in a format to be decided. Each team will play 24 games and there will be no playoffs.

That leaves only the B.C. Division currently frozen out.

“We are in on-going discussions with B.C. health authorities and we are in the process of reviewing the details of our return to play proposal,” said Robison. “We are hopeful that we can obtain approval soon.”

There is mounting speculation the B.C. Division will play in two bubbles, without fans, with the Royals and host Rockets based in Kelowna and the Vancouver Giants, Prince George Cougars and host Blazers based in Kamloops.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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