It’s the big freeze of rink ice again after the big freeze-out.
The first two junior hockey games on the Island since March took place this weekend at the Q Centre. It wasn’t even pre-season — but an exhibition set before the B.C. Hockey League pre-season — but it sure felt fine to the Victoria Grizzlies and Nanaimo Clippers to again experience live action.
“We’re just happy to have hockey back and are making the most of it,” said third-year Grizzlies forward Eddie Yan.
It was a much-needed release of pent-up energy and emotion, concurred Victoria forward Connor Eddy
“It felt great to finally be in a real game,” said Eddy, who scored the Grizzlies’ lone goal in a 2-1 loss to the Clippers on Friday night. The Saturday night game between the clubs was in progress at press time.
“After so long of no contact, and social distancing, there was a lot of hitting and chirping. It felt like the regular season,” added Eddy.
This season, as unusual as it is, is a crucial one for Yan as he looks to state his case for a place on the host team roster in his hometown 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
“I have graduated from the U-20 national team, and the first [China] national team senior camp is next spring,” he said.
“We’ll see how the COVID situation is by then. I think, overall, the organizers will make it happen for the 2022 Winter Games. It’s exciting to look forward to.”
Eddy said the Grizzlies “bonded well,” considering it was the first time in game situations in six months.
“The full chemistry is not yet there but that will come as we progress through this process,” added Yan.
The weekend games were bittersweet in a sense, however, for the returning Clippers players, led by captain Kyler Kovich, the 168th ranked North American skater for the 2020 NHL draft. The 2020 BCHL playoffs were abruptly cancelled in March, due to the pandemic, just as Nanaimo was readying to play in the Island Division final against Cowichan Valley.
The Island Cup pre-season tournament will run Oct. 2 to Nov. 28 with the Grizzlies, Clippers, Cowichan Valley Capitals and Alberni Valley Bulldogs in a cohort. The Grizzlies, Bulldogs and Clippers will later hive off into a three-team cohort and Capitals and Powell River Kings into a two-team cohort.
The teams will play 14 games each, not including the “playoff” semifinals and final for the Island Cup.
The provincial Phase 3 of the return to sports allows for team-versus-team league or exhibition play on a regional basis in cohorts of up to four teams. Quarantine breaks are required before the teams can rotate into new cohorts of up to four teams.
There are also similar BCHL pre-season tournaments for Lower Mainland and Interior teams. No fans will be allowed into the rinks. The BCHL regular season is tentatively set to begin Dec. 1, also in a cohort format, and also likely without fans. The league has asked for 25 per cent of arena capacity attendance but has not expressed optimism the provincial health office will allow spectators, at least to start the regular season. The so-called “Plan B” is to make up the gate shortfall by charging players fees to play this season.
The BCHL is a prime producer of talent for the U.S. collegiate ranks and in 2019-20 surpassed its previous best number of players committed to NCAA Div. 1 programs with 166, compared with 151 in 2018-19. The Grizzlies have produced the likes of Stanley Cup- champion Tyler Bozak, Dallas Stars captain and Olympic-champion Jamie Benn and first-round NHL draft pick and Colorado Avalanche prospect Alex Newhook in their 26 seasons of operation.
“The players know NCAA and NHL scouts will still be watching [online]. So these games are very important to the players,” stressed Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon.