Hockey Canada and the BCHL still aren’t playing nice with one another.
Hockey Canada took shots at the BCHL about how many roster spots it uses on American players in a written statement Monday, explaining how Hockey Canada’s “priority is to provide Canadian athletes with opportunities to participate in our national winter sport,” and how their rules at the Junior A level reflect the national governing body’s “strong belief in preserving these opportunities for Canadian players.”
The statement was prompted by five teams leaving the Alberta Junior A Hockey League (AJHL) last week to join the BCHL for the rest of the season. That included the three-time-reigning Centennial Cup national champion Brooks Bandits.
Hockey Canada is “disappointed” in that decision by the Alberta clubs to “complete their season playing in a non-sanctioned league.”
The 17-team BCHL left Hockey Canada’s system last May, opting to become an independent league because they were frustrated with Hockey Canada’s policies, including those about player recruitment.
According to the league, the now 22-team BCHL features 132 Americans players or 23.7 per cent of rosters. There are 398 Canadians, or 71.6 per cent of the league’s players. The current team-by-team rosters list 161 players from B.C.
The BCHL also decided to add up to two roster spots per team this season for players from outside of North America. There are 26 such players currently in the league.
The BCHL announced in May that teams could have up to 23 skaters and three goalies this season. Thirteen players had to be Canadian, including five from B.C., which the league says is a long-standing rule.
“They’re making us look like foreigners and we’re not,” BCHL CEO Chris Hebb said of the Hockey Canada statement. “We’ve been around for 61 years and 70 per cent of the league is Canadian. I don’t understand what they’re trying to accomplish.
“Hockey Canada deserves to have an opinion on it. Our opinion is what we’re doing is good for the players and Canadians especially, because that’s the majority of our league.”
This roster makeup isn’t new for the BCHL, which is a premier recruiting league for NCAA programs. The league lists 206 players currently with NCAA Div. I commitments. The BCHL says that is a league record, up from the 190 commitments it had at the close of last season.
According to the website Elite Prospects, the BCHL was 23.8 per cent American (146 players) last year. It was an 18-team circuit then, with a Wenatchee Wild squad in Washington state that had all American players except for one. The Wild owners pulled out of the BCHL this summer when they bought the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice and moved the team to Wenatchee.
The BCHL was 24.5 per cent American (147 players) in 2019-20 according to Elite Prospects, and 18 per cent (103 players) in 2014-15, which was the season before Wenatchee joined the loop.
The Bandits and their four former Alberta league mates — the Blackfalds Bulldogs, Okotoks Oilers, Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints — will now play against one another for the rest of the regular season, with games scheduled until April. The league has said that the B.C. champion will play the Alberta champ in a playoff series, although exact details have yet to be announced.
The Alberta teams jumping leagues is part of what seems to be an ever-changing Junior A landscape in the country. NHL analyst Elliotte Friedman is among those reporting that the NCAA is on the verge of allowing its hockey teams to give out scholarships to major junior players like those from the WHL.
The NCAA had previously balked at that because they have considered WHLers, along with their counterparts from the OHL and the QMJHL, as professionals because they receive a monthly stipend. The NCAA is undergoing its own changes, what with the opening up of transfer rules and the advent of Name Image Likeness (NIL) sponsorship deals for athletes.
“We’ve looked at that,” Hebb said of the NCAA opening up to major junior players, “and we think that our league is an attractive option to college-tracking players under any circumstances.”
Among the changes to the BCHL this season is that they’re now recruiting 16- and 17-year-olds from other provinces, something Hockey Canada had balked at before unless the player’s family moved to this province. The B.C. team rosters list 20 players aged 16 or 17 from provinces outside of B.C.
Leaving Hockey Canada meant that the BCHL had to get their own insurance and their own stable of referees and linesmen.
Hockey Canada has long-standing rules regarding participation in unsanctioned hockey. Any player, referee, linesmen or coach who takes part in the BCHL after Sept. 30 will be ineligible for any Hockey Canada activity for the rest of the season.
Provincial governing body B.C. Hockey looked to fill the void created by the BCHL’s departure from the Hockey Canada development path by bumping up the three Junior B leagues — the Pacific Junior Hockey League, the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League and the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League — to Junior A Tier II this season, with the plan to grant some of the teams Junior A Tier I status in the future and put them in line to compete for the Centennial Cup.
B.C. Hockey announced last month that Vancouver’s Blackfin Sports Group, which is headed by former Vancouver Canucks assistant general manager Chris Gear, will analyze the applicants, with “a goal of concluding all required evaluations during the 2024-25 season.”
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