The B.C. Hockey League announced Friday that regular season games will resume Dec. 1.
“We’ve been having discussions with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture since March around a safe return to play,” BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb said in a statement. “The public health officer has indicated that waiting until December gives us the best chance at ensuring we have an uninterrupted season, while also maximizing the amount of regular-season games we’ll be able to play.”
The 20-team junior league includes the Penticton Vees, Westside Warriors and Vernon Vipers.
Training camps will be permitted to begin as early as Sept. 8 under current mass-gathering restrictions. A series of up to 15 exhibition games, played without spectators, but broadcast live on Hockey TV, will be held prior to the start of the abridged season.
“The reality is that, for us to be able to operate, we need to have fans in our buildings,” said BCHL board chair Graham Fraser. “It became clear from our discussions with the provincial health office that the best way to accomplish this would be to delay the start of our season to give them time to assess the effects of a potential second wave of COVID-19 during flu season.”
Schedules will be released at a later date.
Vees' coach Fred Harbinson was thrilled by Friday's official announcement.
"I think COVID is something that has literally touched everybody's life," Harbinson said in an interview. "People have died, others have lost their jobs. I'm not putting our business ahead or behind anyone else's. We're dealing with families and kids who have a one-time shot through junior hockey. Sports bring a lot of enjoyment to people, especially during negative and challenging times. Sports, and just not hockey, help unite a community."
Harbinson doesn't anticipate any rule changes due to COVID-19. As for the configuration of fan seating, it's still too early to tell. In the case of the Vees, it shouldn't be a challenge because they operate in the largest arena in the league.
"When fans come into the building, I'm certain there will be new guidelines that we will have to adhere to. Concessions are being made by our organization and if the fans want to enjoy hockey, they too will have to make some concessions, whether it's wearing a mask or having to sit two seats apart. Right now it's about the safety of our players that's most important."
Penticton won the bid to host the Centennial Cup, emblematic of junior A hockey supremacy in Canada, scheduled for May.
Despite rumours, Harbinson insists that the event has not been cancelled — at least not yet.
"As of today, it's still a go. We're still meeting with Hockey Canada and our fans will be the first to know if things change. It could go in May, it could be pushed back a month until June or maybe this year everyone will just host their own provincial championship and then we will host the tournament in 2022."
Harbinson acknowledges all teams were in the same situation when their seasons came to an abrupt end following the opening round of playoffs. (In the case of the Vees, they eliminated West Kelowna 4-1 in a best-of-seven quarter-final.)
The recruits have remained active over the past several months, the coach insists.
"We started off by giving our players a workout with the thought that they wouldn't have access to weight equipment or ice-time. A lot of our guys have home gyms and many found access to ice. They've all been working hard. They're anxious to get going, but they're most excited about being part of a team, getting back in the locker room and working together."