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Virus pandemic hits Victoria Grizzlies, BCHL hard

The Victoria Grizzlies strongly support the B.C. Hockey League’s move to seek federal government assistance to help get the league through the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were a lot of empty seats inside The Q Centre last month when Brady MacDonald and the Grizzlies played the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the first round of the playoffs. A short playoff and the recent COVID-19 pandemic have hit the GrizzliesÕ bottom line.

The Victoria Grizzlies strongly support the B.C. Hockey League’s move to seek federal government assistance to help get the league through the COVID-19 pandemic.

BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb said individual teams are in peril and the Junior A league will ask for aid.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday announced $500 million of relief through Heritage Canada will be targeted specifically for the sports, arts and culture sectors.

“We definitely need to get that help,” said Grizzlies president Lance Black.

“Chris Hebb has been doing a marvellous job,” he said of the commissioner, a former Canadian champion basketball player with the University of Victoria Vikes.

Black said it’s no secret BCHL teams are suffering in the pandemic.

“We are hurting because our sponsors are hurting,” said Black.

“This is the time of year we would be out selling advertising. We need the money but no one is buying advertising.”

The league produces many players who move on to the U.S. college ranks, such as former Grizzlies captain, first-round NHL draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche and NCAA rookie-of-the-year Alex Newhook. The league this season passed its previous best number of players committed to NCAA Div. 1 programs with 166, compared to last year’s 151.

These are hockey clubs, to be sure, but they are also small businesses with bottom lines that are being straddled at the best of times. Now, in the worst of times, it’s an economic freefall.

The BCHL playoffs were cancelled last month after the first round had been completed. The Cowichan Valley Capitals and Nanaimo Clippers were readying for a much-anticipated Island Division championship series that never took place.

“You feel for a team like the Coquitlam Express, which after so many [losing] seasons, was probably the best Junior A team in Canada,” said Black.

Next season may even be in jeopardy. Speaking on the radio to Vancouver News 1130, Hebb said he has his fingers crossed but there is no guarantee at this point the 2020-21 BCHL season can take place.

The NHL, NBA and MLS are discussing returns but those scenarios are predicated on no fans being in the stands. That would not work in gate-driven junior hockey.

“We don’t have TV revenue,” said Black.

“Without fans, we would have to shut it down.”

Gatherings of more than 50 people are currently banned in B.C.

Also lost as a revenue stream are the fees paid for the spring hockey camps that BCHL teams host for young up-and-coming talent. Those camps have been postponed.

“The spring leagues are on hold. There are no revenue opportunities, whether advertising or camps, right now,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon.

Didmon, of course, must prepare as if next season is a go.

“We are still recruiting,” he said.

“But it’s by phone. And with no prospects’ camps, scouting is being done by video. Hopefully, down the road, things return to normal.”

AROUND THE LEAGUE: The Trail Smoke Eaters are in search of a new GM/coach after Jeff Tambellini accepted an offer from the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning to become a free-agent recruiter/pro scout. . . . The regular-season champion Express have a new head coach. Dan Cioffi takes over from Jason Fortier, who chose to move on after being named BCHL coach of the year. Cioffi was an assistant coach in Coquitlam between 2007 and 2010 and coached the Junior B Delta Ice Hawks.

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