BCHL decision makers believe a divorce from Hockey Canada will lead to better hockey and more scholarships for its players. They might be right.
For the people in charge of roster building, like Brian Maloney in Chilliwack, the shackles are off in terms of who they can and can’t recruit. Out-of-province players 17-and-under used to be off limits unless you found a way to have them magically become B.C. residents (which happened way more than you’d think). Even if you got that done, you still had to negotiate an oft-expensive deal with whatever team held their rights.
No more of that.
BCHL teams (except Wenatchee) will still have to dress a minimum five players from B.C., but beyond that they can go fishing for prospects anywhere in Canada and the United States without worrying about what a birth certificate or mailing address says. They’ll even be able to carry two Europeans if they want.
But that creates a big question.
Does access to more talented players mean locals get pushed down depth charts, or get pushed out altogether?
“We need to make sure that we have our B.C. athletes as our number one priority,” said BCHL commissioner Steven Cocker in an interview with The Progress. “Ninety-seven per cent of B.C. players in college hockey came through the BCHL and that needs to stay the same.”
Cocker said that because out-of-province players no longer need to magically become B.C. residents to play in the league, that will create openings for other B.C. players.
“A B.C. kid is one that’s come through the system and has grown and developed in British Columbia,” Cocker said. “We are going to better define this so it will be clear cut who’s from B.C. and who’s not.
Beyond that, Cocker said teams will still have incentive to carry at least the minimum of homegrown players, and hopefully more, because their community and fans expect to see locals in the lineup. The Chiefs have nine on the active roster as of Tuesday (May 2).
“Our fans and our communities do recognize where athletes are from and those who are developed in this province,” he said.
The BCHL is expanding roster sizes from the current 23 to 25 plus a third goalie.
That’s in response to the muddiness around affiliate players. When injuries hit in Chilliwack, the Chiefs draw from Abbotsford’s Yale Hockey Academy and the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds program. But both are Hockey Canada affiliated, meaning those players will no longer be allowed to come up for a game or three and drop back down.
Cocker said the league will be lobbying to maintain the status quo, but the bigger rosters are plan B.
He acknowledged bigger rosters mean two more kids probably won’t be playing a lot. Barring injury, the third goalie may not play at all.
“I think coaches would push against the bigger rosters,” Cocker admitted. “There are players that won’t be in the lineup and we want to make sure athletes are playing and developing. But what gives us some comfort is that this is exactly what is being done in college hockey where their rosters are 25 or 26 if not even higher. They are able to manage it.”
The league will be allowing teams to dress one more player per game, up to 19 skaters and two goalies, which is another college hockey thing.
Sticking with affiliate players, those callups for one or two games were a good way for players not ready for full-time junior A to get their skates wet. Now, if the Chiefs or another BCHL team want a kid, it’s become an all-or-nothing scenario.
Younger players may embrace a ‘red-shirt’ recruiting pitch where they spend a season focused on practice time and off-ice work with very limited playing time, but where does it leave a program like the U18 Fraser Valley Thunderbirds if more major midget players are hanging on to the bottom of BCHL rosters?
“I don’t think (Hockey Canada) regulations that don’t allow athletes to play in our league are good for players,” Cocker said. “Our goal is to provide the same opportunities they’ve had to practice and play with our teams and get that early look at what BCHL hockey is all about, but the only way that’s going to happen is through productive conversations.”
Another huge consideration is officiating. BCHL refs, like its players, are on a development pathway. Some work both BCHL and Western Hockey League games. Chilliwack’s Connor McCracken reffed at Hockey Canada’s World U17 Challenge last November and aspires to do more international events.
What does this mean for the men and women in stripes?
Cocker expects the impact to be minimal and he said the league is boosting the pay for its referees.
“Referees are, for lack of a better word, contractors and for someone to say they can’t work in a certain league or for a certain company, we don’t believe that’s legitimate,” he said. “We want more opportunities for them to develop and get to the highest level.”
And finally, what does this mean for hockey ops people like Maloney. If a coach or general manager leaves a BCHL position for whatever reason, will they be able to secure a role with a Hockey Canada-affiliated team without complications?
The answer, by the sounds of it, is no.
“There are regulations put in place to penalize individuals looking to get involved with programs outside of Hockey Canada, and that would probably be a question for them,” Cocker said. “Hockey Canada has a re-application process that coaches and players have access to, but that’s their regulation and not ours.”
Cocker said it’s a lack of conversations that’s led to the BCHL/Hockey Canada divorce, but he hopes they can sit down soon and solve some of these outstanding issues.
“We’ve made it clear to Hockey Canada, B.C. Hockey and everyone that we will have conversations about what is best for the development in athletes in this province and all athletes who want to pursue an education and a career through NCAA hockey.”