Departure Bay is really living up to its name.
The Nanaimo Clippers’ top players are departing the B.C. Hockey League at a rapid clip for the rival Junior A United States Hockey League as part of a wider exodus from the BCHL to the USHL.
“At this rate, every [BCHL squad] will be like an expansion team when we restart,” said Nanaimo GM and head coach Darren Naylor.
The BCHL regular season is targeted for a Feb. 8 start, but that could potentially be pushed back ever further, depending on what the new guidelines are after the current B.C. health restrictions expire Feb. 5. The USHL, however, is playing despite that the U.S. Midwest has experienced higher case loads of COVID-19 than B.C.
Nanaimo had assembled a roster that looked to be the class of the Island Division and a contender to the Penticton Vees league-wide in the BCHL. The Clippers, however, have lost three of their best players to the USHL with high-scoring Sean Donaldson joining the Sioux Falls Stampeders, NCAA Cornell-committed Tyler Kovich the Tri-City Storm and NCAA Clarkson-committed Carter Rose the Youngstown Phantoms. Forward Tim Washe of the Clippers is another casualty of the situation and has also left for Western Michigan to start his NCAA career early.
“It’s getting discouraging. We had built a really good team,” said Naylor.
“We didn’t let the players go for free. We put [monetary] numbers on them and the USHL teams met those numbers.”
The transfer fees are one thing to bank, the cratered-out rosters the departures leave in their wake, are quite another thing to contemplate.
“I’d rather have those bodies here in Nanaimo,” said Naylor, of his lost stars.
With the BCHL season not starting at least until next month, if it happens at all, Naylor summed up the current situation in camp among the players and staff: “It’s hard. Spirits are low.”
To stanch the bleed out, the Clippers have signed two players from the North Island Silvertips U-18 team and acquired forward Thomas Maia from the Victoria Grizzlies.
Nanaimo’s losses follow the Grizzlies losing leading scorer and NCAA Providence College-commit Cody Monds to the Fargo Force of the USHL.
“Providence College wanted him playing games,” said Victoria GM and head coach Craig Didmon.
More than 25 players have left the BCHL for the USHL, according to The Province, including Detroit Red Wings draft pick Kienan Draper and Ayrton Martino, the latter projected by Central Scouting for the second- or third-rounds of the 2021 NHL draft, both from the Chilliwack Chiefs to the Omaha Lancers; Penticton stars Quinn Hutson to the Muskegon Lumberjacks and Owen Murray to the Green Bay Gamblers; and West Kelowna Warriors standouts John Evans to the Dubuque Fighting Saints and 2021 NHL-draft ranked Charles-Alexis Legault to the Lincoln Stars.
At stake are potential pro careers, a consideration more acutely felt among top-level junior players. There were 48 former BCHL players skating in NHL training camps and 32 BCHL alumni – 26 on the main 23-man team line-ups and six on the five-player taxi squads – on opening-week NHL rosters. The former Island Division players on that list are Grizzlies-grads Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, Tyler Bozak of the St. Louis Blues and Jordie Benn of the Vancouver Canucks, Clippers-grad Matt Irwin of the Buffalo Sabres, Cowichan Valley Capitals-product Laurent Brossoit of the Winnipeg Jets and Daniel Carr of the Washington Capitals out of the Powell River Kings.