GAME ON: How and when hockey is returning to Kamloops, Okanagan rinks | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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GAME ON: How and when hockey is returning to Kamloops, Okanagan rinks

John Evans with the West Kelowna Warriors
Image Credit: Submitted/West Kelowna Warriors
November 11, 2020 - 7:30 AM

From seven-year-olds just starting out to NHL draft picks, hundreds of hockey players in Kamloops and the Okanagan are hitting the ice and playing the game.

Except for the most skilled players.

Those are the young men on the two Western Hockey League teams in the region who play for the Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers. They’re way behind other leagues in getting their season started.

“Our hope is Jan. 8,” Bruce Hamilton, chair of the board of directors for the league and owner of the Rockets, told iNFOnews.ca. “Our intent is to push there but, at the end of the day, if (Provincial Health Officer Dr.) Bonnie (Henry) decides we’re not going, then we’re not going. We’re waiting, still, to find out what kind of (seating) capacity we are allowed at that time, if any.”

Minor hockey has started in the region but no parents are allowed in the stands since buildings are only allowed a maximum of 65 people.

The Kootenay International Ice Hockey League has six teams in the region and the B.C. Hockey League has five. Both have been playing exhibition games and will start their regular but somewhat different seasons soon.

Neither of these leagues will have any fans at their games but can run their seasons without any.

The Western Hockey League, on the other hand, is a much more expensive operation on two key levels.

“Our benefits, that go to the players, are so significantly different from theirs,” Hamilton said. “As soon as they (a WHL player) play the game, that earns them a year of scholarship money.”

That means the Rockets will be paying out $170,000 to $180,000 this year in university fees for former players. It makes the league the largest privately funded scholarship program in the country, he said.

Add to that another $120,000 to $130,000 a month just to have a team in the city.

That’s why players are training in their home cities, practicing with teams in other leagues and some are set to play games in the B.C. Hockey League.

All the leagues, from minor hockey on up, are divided into cohorts, similar to what’s being done in schools. Each team will play only three or four other teams for awhile, then later in the season, the cohorts can be changed.

For the WHL, that will mean Kamloops and Kelowna playing against Prince George, Vancouver and Victoria.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba are set to open their WHL seasons on Jan. 8 and Alberta is likely, Hamilton said. B.C. is still waiting for attendance rules being set for this province. The U.S. division has four teams in Washington and one in Oregon. It’s looking iffy for Washington to allow fans, he said.

Here’s how other junior leagues are coping.

B.C. HOCKEY LEAGUE

This includes the Penticton Vees, West Kelowna Warriors, Vernon Vipers and  Salmon Arm Silverbacks as the Okanagan cohort.

They’ve been playing exhibition games since the end of September and will play back-to-back weekend games so, for example, the Warriors are in Salmon Arm tonight, Nov. 6 and host the Silverbacks in West Kelowna tomorrow.

To make the games more meaningful, they are playing for the Okanagan Cup with the final tournament between the four teams set for next week in Penticton.

With no fans in the stands, the teams have had to rely on corporate sponsorships and advertising. The games are broadcast on HockeyTV and Shaw cable.

Each team in the league has picked up one or two WHL players to bolster their rosters but that can be tricky and risky, Chase Johnstone, director of media relations for the West Kelowna Warriors said.

For example, Jack Finley has joined the Warriors. He grew up in Kelowna but plays with the WHL Spokane Chiefs and has been drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Since he’s in Kelowna, there are no travel or accommodation costs so it’s a good fit. But, if the WHL does start in January, he’ll be gone after only a few games.

Each B.C. Hockey League team has 45 “cards” they’re allowed to have players sign each year with a playing roster of 25. If too many WHL players sign, then those players go back to their own leagues. That leaves the teams potentially short later in the season if they load up on too many WHL players now.

So far in the exhibition season, one player with the Surrey Eagles has tested positive for COVID-19. Johnstone says he contracted it from a family member.

Out of an abundance of caution, the team’s Oct. 24 exhibition game was postponed as was one other Lower Mainland exhibition game that weekend.

No start date has been announced for the B.C. Hockey League season but the hope is that it will begin in early December.

KOOTENAY INTERNATIONAL JUNIOR HOCKEY LEAGUE

The Okanagan/Shuswap Conference is made up of the Kelowna Chiefs, North Okanagan Knights, Osoyoos Coyotes, Princeton Posse and Summerland Steam.

In this league, players pay anywhere from $3,500 to $9,000 a season to play, league commissioner Jeff Dubois explained.

Those fees were increased this year to help offset the loss of revenue from ticket and concession sales.

Teams have also tried to sell sponsorships and advertising but in a COVID-19 economy, that’s been tough, he said.

The season, which starts Friday, Nov. 13, has been cut from 49 to 30 games and longer road trips have been eliminated.

Three teams, 100 Mile House, Beaver Valley and their one American team, the Spokane Braves, have “gone dark” for the year.

The plan is to adjust the cohorts following the two week Christmas break and again at the end of January.

“We haven’t made a final decision on what the playoff structure is going to be,” Dubois said. “We’re waiting to see where things go with the health and safety guidelines in the province.”

One player from the Kimberley Dynamiters tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 30. That led to eight other players being told to self-isolate and the team’s final exhibition game was cancelled.

OKANAGAN MAINLINE AMATEUR HOCKEY ASSOCIATION

The Okanagan Mainline region stretches from the Cariboo to the U.S. border.

Cohorts have been formed with both recreational and rep leagues. These will be reshuffled after Christmas.

Games started last weekend. Normally the teams start playing against each other in October.

“The biggest difference this year is that there are no tournaments and parents are generally restricted from coming into the rink to watch their kids play,” Marnie Douglas, president of the West Kelowna Minor Hockey Association said.

Some parents don’t like that idea but often one or two parents can get inside and live stream games, which helps.

The cohorts have been structured, even for rep teams, to keep travel to a minimum. There will be fewer games and no provincial championship.

“Ultimately, everyone just wanted the kids to be playing,” Douglas said. “A lot of work has been done to make sure that is done safely.”

Those are comments that Hamilton, with the Rockets, echoed.

“The one thing we’re losing a little bit of focus on is that this thing (COVID-19) is still out there and it’s serious,” he said. “We’re falling into the trap that we’ve got to get started. From our perspective – the Western Hockey League and the Canadian Hockey League – the health of our players has got to be first and foremost.”


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