Spruce Kings, BCHL won't start season until December

Barring a miraculous cure for COVID-19, the B.C. Hockey League will not be playing games until Dec. 1st.

The 18-team league will this week submit its newest proposal to the B.C. government which calls for the delay of training camps until October. Teams will then have two months to practice and work on skill development before the heavy hitting of the regular season begins.

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In addition to the December opening, the league also hopes to gain provincial approval to allow a minimum of 25 per cent capacity at all its arenas for BCHL games. That arena capacity would increase as the season progresses.

 “The Alberta Junior Hockey League announced their schedule (a week ago), which is starting in September and we just don’t see that,” said Prince George Spruce Kings general manager Mike Hawes.  “Provincial guidelines in each province are different. The limit of mass gatherings in Alberta has gone up to 200 and we’re still at 50, but I don’t see Alberta being able to start then even though they’ve announced that.

“For our league, attendance and gate revenue are important. I don’t want to speak ill of other leagues but there are other leagues where attendance isn’t like it is with ours. The gates are less important so they’re able to operate with less fans or no fans, but with our league that’s not an option.”

Prince George city council put the Spruce Kings into a difficult place when it announced this week that city arenas will remain closed indefinitely, rather than the original plan to reopen the rinks in August.

Hawes serves on the league’s six-member return –to-play taskforce, which gathers for Zoom conference calls two or three times per week, and he says the possible scenarios can change suddenly, depending on what the provincial health authority decides.

Under the proposal, instead of a 56-game schedule, each BCHL team would play 44 games, ending in early April. A two-month postseason would follow, ending with the Fred Page Cup league championship series in late May. Hawes said BCHL champions will likely opt out of the Doyle Cup (Pacific regional) championship and the Centennial Cup (national junior A) tournament, to be hosted in Penticton next spring.

“Teams would have the option, from September 8th to December 1st, of running extended training camps, said Hawes. “They can do skill development, do practices and there might be some exhibition games scheduled in the league in those months, with zero fans.”

He said it’s unlikely the Spruce Kings will host any of the eight exhibition games it has planned for October-November and  each game would be a one-day roadtrip to save on hotel costs. All of the league’s exhibition games will be webcast on Hockey TV.

To help defray costs, Hawes said BCHL teams will probably charge players a season fee. Teams that are struggling financially will be given the option of not playing in the upcoming season and take an economic hiatus to save costs. Those who apply for the exemption will have to inform the league a couple months ahead of the season to give the remaining teams time work out their schedules.

“At this point there are no teams that are indicating they won’t participate, and that’s a great thing,” said Hawes. “But that could change as they look deeper into their financials and decide whether it’s going  to work for them if we do get the health authority’s approval to start December 1st  with a minimum 25 per cent capacity.”

High school-aged Spruce Kings will be registered at Prince George Secondary School and Hawes said all their classes will be online, with the opportunity to attend school twice a week for tutoring or other instruction. Players will have their temperature checked each day as they enter the dressing room and will be sent home to begin an 14-day quarantine if they show any signs of fever or other COVID-19 symptoms.

The community-owned Spruce Kings sold out the Show Home Lottery in May, which covers at least half of the team’s half-million dollar operating budget. But with so much uncertainty hovering over the league, Hawes said the club will try to get a break from the city in what it pays for ice rental and office space at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena. The team office at the rink has been locked up and inaccessible for more than three months since the outbreak of the virus. Last year the team pays about $77,000 annually in rent to the city.

Because the playoffs were cancelled following the completion of the first round in early March, no league champion was declared. Heading into the new season, that makes the Spruce Kings two-time defending champions, having won their only league title in 2019.

The Kings will be back playing in the Interior Conference for the first time since 2012, when they moved to the Mainland Division. Their Interior opponents include the expansion Cranbrook Bucks, who will make their BCHL debut this season.

Recognizing the fact minor hockey players haven’t been on the ice since March, the Spruce Kings are hoping to gain city approval to host an abbreviated two-week hockey school in late-August.

“I think there’s a huge need for that in the community right now  for the local youth, they’re just dying to have something like that,” said Hawes.

Pending ice availability, Hawes also plans to utilize the teaching talents of the Kings’ coaches – head coach Alex Evin, associate coach Lukáš Lomicky, assistant coach Jason Garneau and director of player development Nick Drazenovic – to instruct minor hockey camps during the month of September.

By Oct. 1, all 23 players on the roster will be in Prince George for the start of training camp, which would be exclusive to rostered players. Hawes is hopeful border restrictions will be lifted on the American players on the team. The Kings have four U.S. residents to start the news season but they could have the limit of six imports by the time training camp opens. All import players crossing the border would have to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine period.

The Spruce Kings will elect six new directors at the club’s annual general meeting next Monday at 6 p.m. at the Sandman Signature Hotel. Prior to the election of directors, the team’s financial statement will be presented. Team president David Keough is entering the second year of a two-year term. Due to pandemic restrictions, pre-registration and a $5 fee is required to attend the meeting. Go to https://sprucekingsticketing.as.me/AGM.


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