BCHL commissioner John Grisdale made his annual stop in Trail on Tuesday to take in a game and reflect on his 12 years as head of one of Canada’s most successful junior hockey leagues.
BCHL teams have won more RBC Cups, 11, than any other junior league in Canada and it’s record graduating players to the NCAA or CIS ranks has been tops among Junior A leagues across North America. Last year, 137 BCHL players were awarded scholarships to American or Canadian colleges, including eight from the Smoke Eaters. This year, 88 players have already made commitments to post-secondary institutions.
“It’s a credit to our programs,” said Grisdale. “They’re attracting the kids, we’ve got good coaches, competitive teams, and we provide good opportunities for the kids.”
This season also marked the addition of the BCHL’s only U.S. team, the Wenatchee Wild, to the Mainland division. The Wild did not only get off to a great start, but continue to lead the division and draw more fans to their home games, 2,800, than any team in the league. But in spite of the Wild success, adding more teams to the BCHL is unlikely in the short term.
“We’ve looked at pretty much every place in B.C. to see if there is an opportunity, whether, it’s for relocation, in some cases over on the Island or not, but I think it took seven years for the Wenatchee team to get in so we’ll see how that goes. They have a very strong market, a good following, and it makes a big difference. We’ve pretty much exhausted a lot of opportunities in B.C.”
The BCHL changed its alignment in 2013-14 from two divisions to three, making the Interior division one of the toughest in the country. Regardless of the 20-1 Penticton Vees dominance this year, Grisdale likes the parity in the league and points to the success of Coquitlam’s playoff run in 2014, and Nanaimo’s and Chilliwack’s turn-around last season.
“I just came off the Island, and they’re very competitive, and there’s three or four teams in the Lower Mainland that are right up there … We brought in standards a number of years ago that raised everybody’s level of play, and didn’t increase costs across the league, and we’re really focusing now on how to help our teams and come up with other ideas.”
Making teams financially viable is a prime concern for the BCHL executive, and with teams like the Trail Smoke Eaters struggling with their bottom line, Grisdale has made it a priority to search for ways to improve their respective situations.
“Player wise we are as good as we’ve ever been … but I think all franchises struggle to break even,” said Grisdale. “We’ve got a better financial performance by a long shot than we did a year ago. But we have to continue to make headway because its becoming increasingly more difficult to get bums in the seats and sponsorships.”
Realignment to the three-division format helped teams, particularly Mainland and Island teams, reduce expenses; however, it has also created unique challenges come playoff time.
Once the division champions are crowned, a mini-round robin between the top three teams decides which two will play in a best-of-seven championship.
“As far as our playoff is concerned it’s not ideal, you want to have four-out-of-seven in all rounds, but we morphed into a three-division league because of the things we talked about regarding costs.”
Despite teams’ struggles to stay in the black, the product on the ice continues to improve with 268 BCHL graduates playing for NCAA teams this season and almost 30 in the NHL.
While the former Vancouver Canuck defenceman didn’t expect to carry on as commissioner for this long, his passion for the game and the people involved persists.
“I certainly didn’t intend to do this this long, but I love the league,” said Grisdale. “I’m really committed to the group, and I love the effort everyone puts in, like Tom Gawryletz here. That really does keep me going, but there’s still more work to do and as we talked about those issues that we try to figure out, I look forward to working away at those and we’ll see.”
For Grisdale, one of the favourite aspects of his job is traveling the province, visiting communities and meeting the people behind the scene, like those in the Spud Shack.
“Coming to Trail, honestly, this to me is one of the best junior A rinks still in B.C. . . . but I love coming here and talking to some of the old timers that still come out and still have their same seat, I mean it’s pretty special right.”