Victoria Grizzlies and Island teams in BCHL ready for pre-season

The new age of cohort competition has come to the B.C. Hockey League.

The Island Cup pre-season tournament will begin with the Victoria Grizzlies, Cowichan Valley Capitals, Nanaimo Clippers 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.

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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 will also be BCHL similar pre-season tournaments for Lower Mainland and Interior teams. No fans will be allowed into the rinks.

The Grizzlies and Clippers begin play tonight and Saturday with a pair of pre-Island Cup games at the Q Centre. Although it’s a season unlike any other, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams are striving for as much normalcy as possible.

“This league is about developing players. In order to do that, they need competition and training,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon.

“That’s why we are trying to make it feel as normal as we can.”

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. That includes players such as former Grizzlies captain Alex Newhook, selected in the first round of the 2019 NHL draft by the Colorado Avalanche, and named 2019-20 NCAA rookie of the year with Boston College.

“The players know NCAA and NHL scouts will still be watching [online]. So these games are very important to the players,” said Didmon.

“That’s why there’s a real sense of excitement among the players in getting going this weekend.”

The BCHL regular season is tentatively set to begin Dec. 1, also in a cohort format, and likely without fans. The league is not optimistic the provincial health office will allow spectators.

“Our main objective remains to play a season, no matter what, but our original goal of starting in December with 25 per cent capacity in our buildings is in jeopardy,” admitted BCHL board of governors chair Graham Fraser, in a statement this month.

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have 30 players —17 forwards, 10 defencemen and three goaltenders — heading into the pre-Island Cup exhibition games tonight and Saturday against the Clippers.

“It’s been a very competitive camp with the veteran players showing they are ready to lead and several newcomers indicating they are capable of making immediate impacts,” said Didmon.

The Grizzlies bench boss and GM pointed to 2019-20 leading scorer Cody Monds, last season’s BCHL top rookie runner-up and committed to NCAA Div. 1 Providence College, and forward Alex DiPaolo as returning players who have had strong camps. American forward Chase McInnis, son of 12-season NHLer Marty McInnis and committed to NCAA Div. 1 Northeastern, is another veteran appearing poised for a big year.

Among the newcomers who have impressed in camp is forward Devon Devries.

He is from Stanstead College boarding school in Quebec.

It’s a place the Victoria club has had success recruiting from before with Nashville Predators draft pick and former Grizzlies forward Alex Campbell, and returning forward Andrew Amousse, also hailing from Stanstead.

Tonight, meanwhile, will be the first game for the Clippers since the 2020 BCHL playoffs were cancelled in March just as Nanaimo was readying to play in the Island Division final against Cowichan Valley.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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