The Cowichan Valley Capitals and Chilliwack Chiefs battle in a game during the 2019-20 B.C. Hockey League season. (File photo)

BCHL asks province for help with pandemic losses

League has ‘every intention’ of playing next season, but financial issues have been identified

Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the cancellation of the 2020 playoffs and spring camps, both vital revenue-generators, and uncertainty about ticket revenue and sponsorships for next season, the B.C. Hockey League has asked the provincial government for financial assistance to offset its losses.

“We have every intention of playing hockey next season, with all 18 of our teams, if we get the green light from Hockey Canada as well as the provincial health authorities,” BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb said. “But, the reality is we’ve identified potential financial issues down the road due to this pandemic and want to address these problems now.

“The league has already lent its support to our teams through a contingency fund, but it’s clear that more is needed.”

According to Hebb, the league sent a letter to Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Lisa Beare on Saturday, April 18, explaining what the league is and the effects the pandemic has had. They are hoping for a response by the end of this week.

“We had couple of former politicians that we knew guide us through this,” Hebb noted on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s not the business we’re in; we’re not lobbyists.”

The BCHL cut the 2020 playoffs short after the first round, when Hockey Canada shut down all sanctioned events indefinitely.

Hebb has expressed concerns recently that the league could lose teams as a result of the pandemic. He acknowledged on Wednesday that some of the clubs may be in dire financial straits, although none have said they won’t be back for a 2020-21 season.

“We have had no teams indicate they won’t be playing,” he said. “but it’s a difficult prospect for teams to be without revenue.”

The BCHL is a gate-driven league, with the bulk of funds coming from ticket sales.

“Both of those are about having people in the seats,” Hebb commented. “At the end of the day, sponsors want people in seats, and ticket sales is our bread and butter.”

Even major junior hockey, Hebb pointed out, does get some money from broadcasting deals, but the BCHL doesn’t have that luxury.

Among sports leagues in the province, the BCHL unique in a number of respects, Hebb said.

“We’re nearly 59 years old,” he pointed out. “Not many leagues have been around that long and have meant so much to so many.”

The league announced last October that it was expanding into the East Kootenays with the Cranbrook Bucks franchise, and Hebb said he is no more concerned about that club than he is about the other 17. Sponsors are “sitting on the sidelines” throughout the league as they wait to see what is going to happen next.

“We know we’re going to take a hit on sponsorship revenue. It’s the same in Cranbrook as in every one of our markets.”

The BCHL has several plans in place for if and when they get the go-ahead for a 2020-21 season, including their original schedule of 54 games, as well as backup plans for 50 and 46 games. The owners, he said, want the season to proceed, as do the players.

“Kids are relying on us as a place to play, and we want to provide it,” Hebb said, pointing out that the league had a record 172 players commit to U.S. Div. 1 or Div. 3 programs or Canadian university teams, a number that has increased each of the last six years. That represents about $3 million in scholarships.

“It’s not only a boon to the community,” Hebb said. “It’s a boon to the kids.”

There are 10 junior A leagues in Canada, but the BCHL produces about 60 per cent of scholarship players, the commissioner said.

“We have something special in B.C. It’s not run-of-the-mill junior A. It’s something that helps kids develop and go to school.

“We hope fans realize we are going to turn over every stone to make sure teams are viable. Remember, these teams are really important to their communities.”

In pursuing funding from the provincial government, the BCHL has gathered letters of support from the mayors of their markets in B.C., as well as the District of Kitimat where the league held its first-ever BCHL Road Show in February.

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