The Trail Smoke Eaters are committed to continue to carry on as the provincial health office announced another COVID order extension on Thursday.
Despite the BCHL hopes and plans to get a season underway on Jan. 8, those were quickly dashed after Dr. Bonnie Henry extended the current public health order to Feb. 5, which means that all sport is restricted to operate under viaSport Phase 2 guidelines.
“We’re still not giving up,” said Smoke Eaters director of business and hockey operations Craig Clare. “Obviously we have to follow the rules until Feb. 5, but by no means are we giving up on the year.”
BCHL Commissioner Chirs Hebb says the league will push the start of the season to Feb. 8.
“Although it is frustrating to have to delay our season start once again, we are in no way, shape or form throwing in the towel on the 2020-21 season,” said Hebb. “We understand why the order was extended and we will continue to work with the PHO on scenarios to start a season in a safe manner.”
The BCHL played close to 90 games of an extended exhibition season without incident, before PHO orders on travel shut down the league on Nov. 23.
With the province giving the go ahead for the NHL to face off on Jan. 13, the move underscores the contention that PHO rules do not apply to professional athletes or politicians.
To add insult to injury, BCHL hockey players are leaving their teams and flying south to play for teams in the US Hockey League (USHL) and North American Hockey League (NAHL), which have been going since October.
The Smoke Eaters have been ‘fortunate’ so far. They lost captain Cody Schiavon and U.S. born Connor Sweeney, but Schiavon on a scholarship to the NCAA University of Vermont and Sweeney to the Islanders Hockey Club of the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC).
“I don’t think we’re going to see that,” said Clare. “We’re here, we’re still training, we’re still practicing and following the PHO. At the same time we are in a better spot than other provinces that can’t train at all. We’re moving forward, and hoping that come Feb. 5, the numbers go down and we can play.”
The KIJHL also released a statement saying it hopes to resume the season after Feb. 5, and that teams like the Castlegar Rebels will continue with preparations to award the Teck Cup to the league champion in the spring.
“I would like to acknowledge the patience and resiliency of our athletes, team staff, billet families, volunteers, sponsors and fans as we continue to navigate a challenging season,” says KIJHL Commissioner Jeff Dubois. “Our goal is to return to competitive play as soon as the provincial guidelines allow us to do so. In the meantime, our member clubs are working hard to maximize development opportunities for their players in a structured team environment, while following all relevant health and safety protocols.”
Despite the cancellation of last year’s playoffs in March and uncertainty surrounding this season, the Smoke Eaters coaching and management staff showed acute foresight in recruiting a younger squad than a more normal year would see.
“We went younger this year,” said Clare. “We didn’t know what the future was going to look like, so this was an opportunity to go younger, so when everything opens up, most likely next year, with fans in the building, then we got a team that’s all returning, has some experience and is ready to compete.”
Smoke Eaters goalie Logan Terness is 18, although committed to Connecticut, and backup Cayden Hamming is just 17. The seven remaining Trail defenceman are all born in 2002, and 11 forwards are eligible to return next season including veterans Chase Dafoe, 18, and Jaden Senkoe, 19.
The Smoke Eaters continue their skills practices and workouts Monday to Friday, following the PHO Stage 2 guidelines. Whether there is a season this year or next, the Trail team and the staff will be prepared for whatever happens.
“We have a group of all returning players,” said Clare. “And that’s motivation enough to build, and if we don’t play this year then we’ll have a group for next year that has been practicing all year together.
“Some teams might not be able to say the same thing.”