The Penticton Vees had two players leave the team for the USHL last week. Photo: Jim Bailey.

The Penticton Vees had two players leave the team for the USHL last week. Photo: Jim Bailey.

BCHL to wait out health order as players fly south

U.S. born players in the BCHL are leaving teams and heading south for remainder of the season

The recent provincial health order may spell the beginning of the end of a BCHL season.

The extended COVID protocols coupled with the increasing number of players leaving their BCHL teams and heading south for junior leagues in the United States is leaving a mark.

The United States Hockey League (USHL), the North American Hockey League (NAHL), and the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) have been playing regular season games since October.

According to the BCHL Network, more than a dozen players, most U.S. born, left BCHL teams last week including Penticton Vees defenceman Owen Murray to the USHL Green Bay Gamblers and forward Matteo Constantini to Sioux City Musketeers.

“Our players chose the BCHL as the best league for their development, but COVID-19 and the restrictions in B.C. have forced them to look elsewhere,” explained Jesse Adamson, BCHL content services coordinator. “Hockey Canada has protections in place that would keep Canadian players in Canada, but Americans are being recruited to play in the U.S. as long as they are following specific protocols between Hockey Canada and USA Hockey.”

The Nanaimo Clippers suffered one of the biggest losses as captain Kyler Kovich joined the Tri-City Storm of the USHL.

The Powell River Kings found out from an article in the Minot Daily News that veteran forwards Brett Roloson and Powell River native Ethan Schmunk along with defenceman Ross Roloson had all signed with the Minot Minotaurs of the NAHL.

The NCDC’s New Jersey Hitmen coaxed Cade Alami to come over from the Surrey Eagles and Alberni Bulldogs forward Isaac MacLeod.

Eagles forward Kenny Riddett left for the Islanders Hockey Club, along with goalie Brandon Milberg of the Langley Rivermen, the same NCDC team that Trail Smoke Eaters forward Connor Sweeney went to play for last month.

D-man Luke Busby, 18, of the Coquitlam Express went to the NAHL Maine Nordiques, and 19-year-old defenceman Pat Lawn bid farewell to the West Kelowna Warriors for the Connecticut Jr. Rangers of the NCDC.

Vernon Vipers goaltender Reilly Herbst is hoping to find a spot with Dubuque of the USHL after being released from the NAHL Lone Star.

Related read: Smoke Eaters prepared for start, whenever it happens

To offset the players exit, BCHL teams continue to recruit and add players from the U18 AAA and Junior B ranks.

“At the end of the day, this is a decision that the players and their families make, but we still intend to play this year and any player that leaves for another league in the U.S. will not be able to come back for the 2020-21 season.”

Following the extension of viaSport’s Phase 2 play to Feb. 5, the BCHL announced its commitment to wait it out and have a season, if possible, in February. However, if extended further, the prospect of a season diminishes significantly.

“We do not yet have a drop-dead date as for when the latest we would be able to start a season, so no, Feb. 5 is not currently considered a last-ditch effort,” said Adamson. “Obviously, if these extensions continue, we would have to look at what that date would be, but we are not at that point yet.”

If the league gets a go-ahead, Adamson says teams would likely play a schedule between 20 and 30 games, with a regional focus. With Wenatchee Wild suspending their season, the remainder of the 17 BCHL teams are located in BC, and played close to 90 games in a cohort of four teams for the two-month exhibition season in October and November.

Yet, the BCHL and its teams have suffered significant financial losses, and if the league starts in February, with no fans in the stands, team expenses will only increase, leaving teams even more fiscally challenged and potentially unable to participate.

“No teams have indicated to us that they are in danger of shutting down,” said Adamson. “That being said, the financial strain this is putting on our teams is significant, so it remains a possibility going forward.”

The Western Hockey League (WHL) announced last week that it was also committed to having a 24-game season.

Yet, the WHL has an even more daunting task, with teams in all four western provinces, Washington State and Oregon.

“The Western Hockey League is committed to providing a season for WHL players,” said commissioner Ron Robison. “This commitment ensures WHL players will receive the opportunity to compete at the highest level in the system and continue to pursue their hockey goals in the world’s finest development league for junior hockey players.”

The action will potentially give exposure to players eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft, and the respective NHL organizations more insight into their draft selections.

Smokies notes: Trail Smoke Eaters sent 20-year-old forward Justyn Gurney to the Coquitlam Express for future considerations. The Delta product played 175 games in the WHL with Calgary, Regina and Everett, scoring 10 goals and 31 points, and 172 penalty minutes over four seasons.

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