BCHL Commissioner Chris Hebb (right) visited the Trail Smoke Eaters and Trail’s head of hockey operations Craig Clare in August 2018 as part of his 17-team tour of BCHL cities. Jim Bailey photo.

Smoke Eaters hopeful, as BCHL looks for financial support from province

Despite cancellation of promising playoff, Trail Smoke Eaters are optimistic about upcoming season

Despite the loss of a promising postseason, the Trail Smoke Eaters are staying hopeful and healthy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After playoffs were cut short and the season cancelled, the BC Hockey League commissioner went public last week in a request for financial assistance from the provincial government.

“We have every intention of playing hockey next season, with all 18 of our teams, if we get the green light from Hockey Canada as well as the provincial health authorities,” BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb said. “But, the reality is we’ve identified potential financial issues down the road due to this pandemic and want to address these problems now.”

The cancellation of playoffs and camps, both vital revenue-generators, and uncertainty about ticket revenue and sponsorships for next season, will leave many teams and the league seeing red.

“The league has already lent its support to our teams through a contingency fund, but it’s clear that more is needed,” said Hebb.

The Smoke Eaters are still operating with all its staff, and have yet to make any cuts due to financial hardship caused by the pandemic, said Smokies Director of Player and Business Operations, Craig Clare.

“We’re ready to go. Rich Murphy has put an investment into this team and city and its employees. Obviously these are difficult times, but when they tell us to open our doors and play hockey, we’re going to be ready to go.”

The Trail Smoke Eaters had the best fan support in its BCHL history this season, and were among the top-five in league attendance averaging 2,011 fans per game.

Despite having the smallest population, Trail was one of five teams that topped the 2,000 fan mark, along with Penticton (3,092 fans per game), Wenatchee Wild (2,275), Chilliwack Chiefs (2,031), and Vernon Vipers (2,021). Four of the five (except the Chiefs) teams play in the Interior Division.

“Our support from our fans, have helped us get through this for sure,” said Clare. “But it’s difficult not being able to sell season tickets or being able to prepare.”

Other markets are more of a concern. The last place Merritt Centennials averaged the lowest number, 563 per game, but the Coquitlam Express, despite finishing first overall, drew just 595 fans per game. Another Mainland Division team with the largest population, the Surrey Eagles, drew an average of 632.

Hebb expressed concerns recently that the league could lose teams as a result of the pandemic. He acknowledged that some of the clubs may be in dire financial straits, although none have said they won’t be back for a 2020-21 season.

“We have had no teams indicate they won’t be playing,” he said. “But it’s a difficult prospect for teams to be without revenue.”

The BCHL is a gate-driven league, with the bulk of funds coming from ticket sales.

“Both of those are about having people in the seats,” Hebb commented. “At the end of the day, sponsors want people in seats, and ticket sales is our bread and butter.”

In Trail, the Smoke Eaters played two playoff games on home ice, before the season’s sudden end. They are in a decent position, having had a record number of fans at the gate and strong support from sponsors, but forecasting what the future will bring, and what hockey and sports in general will look like, is worrisome.

“I’m hopeful that on September 1 we can open our doors and have training camp,” said Clare. “I’m still optimistic, until we’re told we’re not.

“We’re still working, we’re still ready to ice a team, and we are excited about the group we have coming in. We just need them to open the door for us.”

Even major junior hockey, Hebb pointed out, does get some money from broadcasting deals, but the BCHL doesn’t have that luxury.

Among sports leagues in the province, the BCHL is unique in a number of respects, Hebb said.

“We’re nearly 59 years old,” he pointed out. “Not many leagues have been around that long and have meant so much to so many.”

The BCHL has several plans in place for if and when they get the go-ahead for a 2020-21 season, including their original schedule of 54 games, as well as backup plans for 50 and 46 games. The owners, he said, want the season to proceed, as do the players.

“Kids are relying on us as a place to play, and we want to provide it,” Hebb said, pointing out that the league had a record 172 players commit to U.S. Div. 1 and Div. 3 programs as well as Canadian university teams, a number that has increased each of the last six years. That represents about $3 million in scholarships.

“It’s not only a boon to the community,” Hebb said. “It’s a boon to the kids.”

There are 10 junior A leagues in Canada, but the BCHL produces about 60 per cent of scholarship players, the commissioner said.

“We have something special in B.C. It’s not run-of-the-mill junior A. It’s something that helps kids develop and go to school.

“We hope fans realize we are going to turn over every stone to make sure teams are viable. Remember, these teams are really important to their communities.”

With files from Black Press reporter Kevin Rothbauer.

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