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Province approves BCHL's return-to-play plan

After months of uncertainty the B.C. Hockey League is returning to the ice for league play starting April 2.
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After months of uncertainty the B.C. Hockey League is returning to the ice for league play starting April 2.

The provincial health office has approved the league’s return-to-play plan and the Prince George Spruce Kings are making plans to move to Chilliwack for an 18-20 game schedule for a five-week season that will end May 9.

“We were thrilled to get that word from the provincial health office and now we’re in the process of just refining the details as we look to prepare a schedule over the next coming couple of days,” said Spruce Kings general manager Mike Hawes.

“I can’t say enough about the tremendous work the league office has done through this process and having been involved on the grassroots level on the return-to-play task force, it’s been countless hours or work those guys have put in. In my 17 years in this league this has obviously been the toughest year for any of us to be involved in and I’m extremely proud of the work that’s been done to get to this point. The focus and the goal all the way along has always been the players and getting them back in this ice because they deserve it, and I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to provide that for them.”

Teams will have to the option to opt out of the plan to salvage the 2021 season if they so choose. The Wenatchee Wild of Washington state, the league’s only American team, will not play this season.

The Spruce Kings will be grouped with the Chilliwack Chiefs and either one or two other teams in one of five BCHL hubs. Other hub cities will be established in Vernon, Penticton, Coquitlam and Port Alberni and all teams will remain in their hubs for the duration of the season.

No playoff plans have been formalized but if there is a post-season the most likely scenario would be a tournament-format playoff which would involve the top teams from each of the five pods.

The Spruce Kings will practice at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena Saturday night, then return to their practice ice Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. before returning to their homes to begin a 14-day quarantine that starts Sunday at 6 p.m. The players and staff will come out of quarantine March 28 and get tested for COVID, then will travel to Chilliwack either March 29 or 30.

The BCHL played pre-season games from September-November until new provincial restrictions came into effect, which ruled out any competitions and forbid teams from traveling to and from other regions. Teams have been allowed to practice their skills since but have not been allowed to engage in scrimmages or game-simulation drills. The Spruce Kings camp was shut down for two weeks starting in mid-February, when several players tested positive for COVID-19.

“I couldn’t be happier for our group, just wearing my Spruce Kings hat right now, I know what our players and staff have gone through during this process and what they’ve persevered through to stay on task,” said Hawes. “I can’t say enough good things about the job done by  Alex (Evin) and Lukas (Lomicky) and the rest of the coaching staff and the players to maintain a positive outlook and hope for this day and continuing practicing for months and months.

“Then you throw in the situation we went through with some positive tests and that adversity we went through, I couldn’t be prouder of the job they’ve done to stay on task and prepare for what now has resulted in some game play that they much deserve.

“This gives our players, especially for our older guys, 18 or 20 games of exposure to NCAA schools and scouts and NHL scouts and that’s what this this whole process has been about.”

While in Chilliwack, the Spruce Kings will be housed and fed in a hotel, which is being made available at a reduced rate. The Spruce Kings, Trail Smoke Eaters, Powell River Kings and the expansion Cranbrook Bucks are the only teams that will have to be housed in hotel rooms during the upcoming season which creates additional costs for those teams and some subsidies from the league will be made available to the teams that have to relocate. All other teams will have their players living in billet homes.

The BCHL and the five WHL teams based in B.C. have combined with a joint request for $9.5 million in provincial funding that would give the 17 B.C. based BCHL teams $3 million and the WHL teams in Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George a share of $6.5 million.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives in countless ways. To keep each other safe, we have had to limit activities that are fundamental to our normal way of life,” said Premier John Horgan, in a statement released Friday. “While we are not out of the woods yet, there is hope on the horizon and we are now ready to, gradually and safely, resume some of these activities. That includes getting young people back on the ice this season.”

All BCHL games will be streamed live on Hockey TV, which is accessed by subscription. There will be no fans allowed in any of the buildings during those games.