Victoria Grizzlies to play Island teams less in new-look BCHL

Get ready for fewer visits to The Q Centre from the Cowichan Valley Capitals, Nanaimo Clippers and other Island Division teams next season, and more from the likes of the Surrey Eagles, Coquitlam Express and other Mainland Division teams as the B.C. Hockey League is set to announce a re-alignment due to the addition of the expansion Cranbrook Bucks.

Beginning next season, the BCHL will move to a two-conference format with nine teams in each conference and a more balanced, but shorter schedule. And because of the shorter schedule, the league is also planning a late-September start to the season, rather than the usual early-September.

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The Prince George Spruce Kings will move from the current Mainland Division to the newly formed Interior Conference, along with the expansion Bucks, Penticton Vees, Salmon Arm Silverbacks, Trail Smoke Eaters, Vernon Vipers, Merritt Centennials, West Kelowna Warriors and Wentachee Wild.

The Grizzlies, Capitals, Clippers, Alberni Valley Bulldogs and Powell River Kings, will form the Coastal Conference, along with the Eagles, Express, Langley Rivermen and Chilliwack Chiefs.

“I like it, mainly because of the more variety of opponents,” Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon said Monday as he prepared his club for tonight’s contest against the Warriors at The Q Centre.

“Our fans will get to see the Mainland teams twice now and a little less of the Island opponents that they usually see a lot of.

“It will also spread out our opponents so you’re not seeing the same team three games in a row like we have this year.”

Teams will also play four fewer games next season as the league moves to a 54-game schedule from 58. And with a more balanced schedule the conference playoff format can return to first place-vs.-eighth, second-vs.-seventh, third-vs.-sixth, fourth-vs.-fifth, rather than a format with wild cards as is done now.

“Again, I like it. It’s simple and straight forward,” said Didmon.

The Grizzlies hardly have time to think about next season though, as they are in the thick of a close seeding battle for this year’s post-season. And their opponent tonight is right there with them.

The Grizzlies (18-29-1) currently hold down the first of three wild-card playoff berths, which would see them open the playoffs against the third-place team in the Interior Division, currently the Salmon Arm Silverbacks (24-20-4). But the race for wild-card positioning is so close it changes nightly, as is the race for third place in the Interior. Salmon Arm is only one point up on Vernon, and two points ahead of Wenatchee in the divisional race.

The Grizzlies are tied in points with the Spruce Kings and four points further back are the Warriors (13-27-7) in the wild-card race.

The goal for the wild-card teams is to avoid playing the Interior’s top two teams — Penticton and Trail — who are second and fourth overall in the league, respectively.

“Tonight is huge for both teams,” said Didmon, whose club has two wins and an OT loss in its last three games.

“We want to get that spot that gives us the third seed [in the Interior] and so does West Kelowna so we’re treating this like a playoff game.”

LOOSE PUCKS: The Grizzlies will again be without veteran winger Eddie Yan, who is with Team China at the Div. II B world junior championship in South Korea. . . . Grizzlies defenceman James Davenport has switched NCAA schools for next season. The 19-year-old de-committed from Brown University and has signed with Northeastern near Boston. . . . After tonight’s game, the Grizzlies start a stretch of four straight games on the road with a visit to Port Alberni on Saturday to face the Bulldogs.

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