Tyler Harper with files from Paul Rodgers
The Kootenay International Junior Hockey League has delayed the start of its season to Nov. 13 when it plans to run a 30-game campaign with three teams opting out and no fans in the stands.
The Junior B league announced Thursday it would move forward with just 17 teams competing after the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, 100 Mile House Wranglers and Spokane Braves decided to take the season off.
KIJHL commissioner Jeff Dubois said the Canada-United States border closure keeps Spokane from taking part, while the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial impact on teams was a factor in Beaver Valley and 100 Mile House deciding to sit out the season.
“We’re playing hockey,” said Dubois. “That’s the good news and hopefully things in the province here improve to the point where some of the restrictions in place now can ease up over the course of the season and we’ll get fans.”
Derek Stuart, head coach and general manager of the Kimberley Dynamiters, said he thinks it’s great the league has found a way to put together a season, despite the strict restrictions and guidelines.
“I give credit to Jeff and the league, they’ve found a way to set something up to allow these young guys to continue to play hockey and chase their dreams of moving up,” Stuart said.
Dubois said the absence of three teams plus provincial restrictions on the number of players who can compete will change the KIJHL’s structure of five teams playing in four divisions.
Instead, the league will have two cohorts of four teams and three cohorts of three teams playing each other. Dubois said the league is planning to have teams change opponents during the Christmas break and at the end of January following a required 14-day quarantine break.
“It won’t be the divisional play that teams are used to,” said Dubois, who added the league is still working on a schedule set to be released Sept. 25. The regular season will end Feb. 26, 2021, to be followed by playoffs.
Stuart lamented the loss of the teams unable to play this year, particularly Beaver Valley.
“It’s very disappointing to see Beaver Valley not being able to play,” Stuart said. “I mean, 100 Mile and Spokane as well, but Beaver Valley for me, they’re probably the most storied franchise in the league’s history and I know, in terms of us getting to the finals, they’re our number one rival and roadblock usually. So it’s definitely disappointing they’re not able to play.”
The KIJHL was among the sports leagues that had to cancel its season mid-playoffs in March when B.C. entered its pandemic lockdown. The league typically starts its regular season in early September, but had planned for an Oct. 2 start this year.
Dubois said the league has told teams to plan for no fans in the stands this season, but he’s hopeful that provincial restrictions ease to allow for it at some point.
“The big thing for us is we’d really like to be in a position to get fans back in our rinks,” he said. “Obviously we’re hoping not to play a full year in front of empty buildings but that’s up to everybody in terms of how that goes over the next few months.”
If those fans do return, Dubois said they will likely notice small changes to the on-ice action.
Crackdowns on scrums around the nets, officials who steer clear of players and measures to prevent fights are being considered by BC Hockey and Hockey Canada, according to Dubois.
Meanwhile, if a player or team staff member tests positive for COVID-19 then tests would be administered to everyone within that team’s cohort. Dubois said a positive test would also shut down the cohort for 14 days without a negative tests.
“That’s one where it’s not a decision we’re making,” he said. “We will follow the guidance of the province and the regional health authority.”
Stuart said he is disappointed Nitros fans won’t be filling the seats this year, for a number of reasons:
“I think the games will play out differently for sure. Fans, especially ours, are a big part of our energy and confidence and they can get us going if we’re not playing well, so I know here at home it’s going to be a big loss not to have our fans there cheering us on — I’m definitely disappointed we’re not allowed fans.
I’m more disappointed that the fans aren’t being able to choose whether to come to the games or not. I think if we mandated masks and had social distancing in the arena, I think we would still be able to make some money to help us out financially and help the team out fan-wise. So I’m just kind of disappointed the fans don’t have a choice.”
The KIJHL is holding a dispersal draft at 1 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 4, allowing the 17 active teams in the league to select players from the three teams unable to play this upcoming season. More on that story to come.