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B.C. Hockey League considering return to Quesnel

Commissioner Chris Hebb confirms Gold Pan City is on the league's radar; city has been without junior hockey since 2011
West Fraser Centre City of Quesnel
The 1,320-seat arena at West Fraser Centre in Quesnel, which opened in September 2017, is being considered as the potential home of a B.C. Hockey League team.

B.C. Hockey League commissioner Chris Hebb confirmed his league is considering Quesnel as a potential site for a franchise.

It’s home to the 1,320-seat West Fraser Centre, which opened in 2017, and the city already has a history of supporting junior A hockey when the Quesnel Millionaires were part of the league for 15 seasons.

“Quesnel is a very interesting market to us,” said Hebb. “They have a good building, for sure, and we just have to make sure that if we’re going to look at, we look at it in a way that honours the city of Quesnel.

“I don’t mind saying we already have a relationship with the (city) council. I’m not going to say we’re going to guarantee there’s a team going into Quesnel, but it’s certainly on our radar.”

In December, a group interested in bringing a BCHL team to Quesnel approached city staff to determine if it would support such a move. In November the city and Cariboo Regional District gave a letter of support to a group headed by Cory Broadhead seeking to locate an expansion franchise in the Kootenay International Junior (B) Hockey League in Quesnel.

Quesnel has been without a junior hockey franchise since 2011, when the Millionaires moved to Chilliwack to become the Chiefs, after years of struggling to pay the bills operating at the small-capacity Quesnel Twin Arenas. The Millionaires joined the BCHL as an expansion team in 1996, the same year the Royal City Outlaws franchise shifted to Prince George to become the Spruce Kings.

“We do believe in expansion and our board has supported that and there’s obviously markets around B.C.  that may be able to support junior A, and we do research on a regular basis,” said Hebb. “I’d love to see us get a couple more teams to get to 20 and maybe something that goes beyond that, but we haven’t identified a market yet. We’re just in the process and making sure we do our due diligence.”

A BCHL team in Quesnel, 120 kilometres south of Prince George, would give visiting teams two stopping points on their roadtrips to the north central Interior. Merritt is currently the closest BCHL city to Prince George - a six-hour highway trip - and the Spruce Kings are obviously in favour of having another opponent in close proximity

Despite the challenges of the pandemic the past two years, Hebb says BCHL teams remain financially solvent, and while attendance is down in several cities, he doesn’t foresee any of the 18 teams not operating next season.

“COVID obviously hurts because you lose people and they get doing other stuff and forget about the fact there’s hockey down the street, but there’s no financial worries in our league,” Hebb said. “We have a plan to make sure every team is able to play next year and they’ve all committed for next year, so I’m not worried about it.”

Provincial health restrictions brought on by the pandemic led to an abbreviated 20-game schedule for each team in the 2021 season, played in hub cities without fans. COVID cases continued to plague teams earlier this season, and the November rainstorm that flooded southwestern B.C. and destroyed highways in disrupted travel for nearly two months, forcing the BCHL to scrap its scheduled interconference games and its all-star weekend in Penticton in January.

Catastrophic flooding in Merritt forced the Centennials out of the home rink for nearly three weeks when the city was evacuated and there has been speculation the community-owned Cents franchise, which has been part of the league since it began in 1961, could be on the move. But Hebb dispelled that rumour.

“I think they’re going to be fine,” said Hebb. “They have a very  committed ownership group there and they may have to get some support from the provincial government on just what’s happened with the flooding. But their 50th anniversary is next year and we’re pretty sure they’re going to be playing.”

During his trip through Prince George two weeks ago, Hebb and deputy commissioner Steven Cocker met with the Lake Babine First Nation chief Murphy Abraham and told him the league is still intent on bringing the BCHL Road Show to Burns Lake. The town was picked to host the 2021 Road Show but that was cancelled, also due to the pandemic.

This year’s event was supposed to bring the Prince George Spruce Kings and Salmon Arm Silverbacks to the territorial lands of the Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation for a pair of regular season games, Feb. 25 and 27, but that was postponed due to a spike in the number of cases of COVID that brought on new restrictions.

“We went and saw Chief Murphy Abraham and his committee and it was really just to reassure him that it’s delayed, not canceled, and we’ll be back in Burns Lake next year for our Road Show,” said Hebb.

The 2020 Road Show in Kitimat featured the Spruce Kings and Langley Rivermen and was considered a huge success, with players and coaches from both teams participating in community and events between their games.

“We never knew exactly how it was going to come off, but the community of Kitimat and especially our partners at LNG Canada did an amazing job,” said Hebb. “We had Canuck alumni come up – Jyrki Lumme and Dave Babych were fantastic – we had the kids going into schools reading to the students. We went on the (Haisla First Nation) reserve and played floor hockey and had a fantastic banquet on the Friday night.

“It’s a cultural experience for our kids just as much as it is playing two regular season games. But doing it at that point in the season (in February), those games mean something.”