When news that the BC Hockey League would play a shortened season, beginning in early April, made its way into the Surrey Eagles’ locker room last week, the response was unanimous: elation.
“The kids are absolutely thrilled. You can’t really put into words what they’ve been through this year, so now to be able to play and to have that uncertainty be gone – the smiles that were on their faces said it all,” Eagles head coach Cam Keith told Peace Arch News Friday, just a few hours after the league’s official announcement.
In a news release Friday morning, the junior ‘A’ league announced that a five-week season – with teams playing in five hub cities – had been approved by the league’s board of governors after the provincial health office had approved the league’s return-to-play proposal.
“This entire process has always been about our players and giving them the best chance to get back to playing games and showcasing their skills, and we have accomplished that today,” BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb said in Friday’s announcement.
Only two teams will not take part in the short season – the Washington-based Wenatchee Wild, who have border-closure issues to deal with as the league’s lone U.S. team; and the Langley Rivermen, who opted out of participating, citing the mental and physical health of their players and the “implications of both the 14 days of isolation followed by… strictly controlled season.”
COVID-19 protocols – including a quarantine period and a number of testing and other safety procedures – are not a worry for Keith or his players, he said.
“They’re so excited to play, you could honestly lay out 20 hoops for them to run through backwards, sideways and over, while twirling something on the top of their heads, and they’d do it with smiles on their faces,” he said.
“They just love hockey, and they had something taken away from them that they’ve routinely been doing since they were five years old, and now they’re being told they can play games again.
“There’s nothing you could tell them they have to do that’s worse than what they’ve already gone through.”
The start of the season – originally intended to begin last fall – has been oft-delayed due to provincial restrictions, and the Eagles also had to deal with one 14-day quarantine period already, after one player tested positive back in October. Shortly thereafter, a change in provincial restrictions – since rescinded – kept the team’s older players from practising with their 19-and-under teammates.
“Mentally, they’re all so tough now… so to tell them they just have to quarantine for two weeks and then they can play games, it’s an absolute breeze for them,” Keith said. “But that being said, it was very hard on them and their mental health throughout the year. It’s been like that for everyone – just constantly waiting for the next update. It’s been hard.”
Over the past few months, the Eagles – as well as every other BCHL team – have lost a handful of players to U.S.-based leagues which started play much earlier. Keith said the Eagles lost seven players – five Americans and two from Eastern Canada.
“It felt a little strange making trades and not knowing if we were going to have a season, but you had to plan for it,” he said. “We have a very talented group of kids, so it’s going to be exciting for them to have the opportunity to showcase themselves.”
The mini-season should serve the team’s younger players well, Keith noted.
“Most of these kids are going to be coming back next year, so this is good development. Now they’ll come in next season battle-tested and ready to go.
“This has been a tough year, but it’s also a learning experience for them, as well.”