After BC Hockey announced the reclassifying of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL) to Junior A on Tuesday (July 25), the Times reached out to the league and the Beaver Valley Nitehawks to see how the change would impact them this year and in the future.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Nitehawks vice president Jake Swanson told the Times. “BC Hockey’s approval of our application to be redesignated provides our league and our teams with a good framework that we need to continue to grow, as a preferred option for developing elite student-athletes for higher levels of hockey.”
BC Hockey approved the application from the KIJHL, the Pacific Junior Hockey League (PJHL), and the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) to receive Junior A status starting this season, following the BCHL’s withdrawal from Hockey Canada on June 1.
However, the Junior A status granted the Junior B teams is not the same as the BCHL or members of the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL), but has a Tier 2 designation.
“Operating under the Junior A Tier 2 designation with the opportunity to pursue Tier 1 membership in the future will help ensure that our league becomes even more of a destination for players,” said KIJHL Commissioner Jeff Dubois.
As part of its agreement with BC Hockey, the KIJHL made a number of commitments.
The league will increase operating standards and provide an enhanced player experience, including cooperation and engagement with an independent advisory board to evaluate Junior A, Tier 2 teams and determine which may be elevated to the Junior A, Tier 1 level.
The league must also provide an ongoing structure ensuring that teams achieving the Junior A Tier 1 classification are ready to compete against the nation’s highest-level of Junior hockey competition.
A BC Hockey release said that the goal for teams who do achieve Junior A Tier 1 status will be to eventually seek membership in the CJHL, and compete for the National championship, Centennial Cup.
Dubois told the Times that it is doubtful that the KIJHL or another B.C. league would take the place of the BCHL and completely compete as a Tier 1 league.
“Since BCHL announced they were leaving Hockey Canada, we’ve talked about a dozen different ways that this could all shake down and how it could look coming out the other side,” said Dubois. “Moving to a province-wide Junior A league, I don’t think there is much of an appetite right now.”
Rather than have teams travel all over the province, Dubois says keeping the KIJHL model as it is currently is their best option.
“What we are picturing now, is the KIJHL continuing to be the KIJHL,” he said. “As we get a little further down the road to Tier 1 hockey and get a better idea of what that looks like for our teams, it could be a situation where you have a Tier 1 and Tier 2 within the KIJHL.”
The KI has also committed to increase its quota of BC/Yukon born players from 44 per cent in 2022-23 season to 52 per cent by 2025-26.
The commitment will impact the Nitehawks and teams in the KIJHL’s Kootenay Conference that recruit several imports, from Alberta in particular. Last season, B.V. carried 10 players from outside B.C., while the Columbia Valley Rockies had 19, Fernie carried 20, Golden 16, Kimberley 17, and Creston 25.
“If you break it down across our conferences, the reality is that last year and most years, there is a lot more BC kids playing in the Okanagan Conference, and the Kootenay Conference has a lot more kids from Alberta and Saskatchewan, and that’s just geography,” said Dubois.
He expects the KI and especially the East Kootenay teams to make more of an effort to identify and recruit B.C. players, which is only a benefit for homegrown local talent.
“I think there is going to be increased interest from B.C. players in playing in our league,” said Dubois. “There is a lot of kids right now who finish their U18 AAA or Academy careers and they end up having to go to Manitoba or Ontario or Saskatchewan to get their foot in the door at the Junior A level. I think a lot of those kids are going to give the KIJHL a good look.
“And I think some of the commitment that we’re making by increasing BC players spots, is going to come as a result of that.”
One unfortunate result of the BCHL departure is the lack of the affiliate connection for the KI to the next level. The Trail Smoke Eaters will no longer be able to source local talent from teams like the Nitehawks, the Castlegar Rebels, Grand Forks Border Bruins or the Nelson Leafs, yet, Dubois says their will be an upside.
“The reality is, with today’s announcement, there isn’t going to be a higher league to affiliate up to. The flip-side of that is that the kids playing Midget AA and Academy hockey in B.C., they’ve always had the BCHL to affiliate to, but I think our teams are going to fill that void for some very high-end minor hockey players who want to get their foot in the door at the Junior A level.”
While the KIJHL embarks into new territory, Dubois is confident that the league will continue to grow and he anticipates a higher level of play in the long run.
“It’s tough to quantify what the difference will be this season, but in the medium to long term, yes, I think the KIJHL will be a more in-demand place to play than it has been in the past,” he added.
“I think there is going to be a lot of kids that previously might have left our league or left B.C. to play junior hockey elsewhere that are going to stay and play here. I think it’s going to make our league more attractive to kids figuring out where they want to play their Junior A hockey, where in the past we wouldn’t have been a consideration.”
As for the Nitehawks, Swanson said the recruitment process for this season will continue as usual, and didn’t expect the change to Junior A Tier 2 status to affect the Hawks from an operational standpoint this season.
“There is going to be a pathway developed, but there is still a lot of work to be done by BC Hockey’s task group, and their independent compliance panel before we can identify what those criteria actually are and what the timeline is to get to Tier 1,” said Swanson.
He says he is confident in the process, and that the league and the Nitehawks team and staff will adapt to the new commitment along with the community’s unwavering support.
“I think it’s great to have that Junior A designation,” said Swanson. “I really don’t think it’s going to change what we are doing in Beaver Valley too much.
“We trust the program that we have and the group of coaches that we have, and we know that whatever level we are playing at, we are going to have a good program.”