02 Sep DEATH OF ICE HOCKEY AS WE KNOW IT IN CANADA
I am an avid hockey fan and the owner of the Nanaimo Clippers, a Junior A hockey team in the BC Hockey League (BCHL).
I’ve also owned a team in Junior B (Delta Ice Hawks in the PJHL) as well as run multiple high-level youth programs including the Burnaby Winter Club. I appreciate the attempts to restart ice hockey this fall but I can tell you with great certainty that these attempts are going to severely undermine competitive hockey in the Province of British Columbia and across Canada. The “new norm” being proposed does not encourage, but actually discourages, competitive hockey which will have a trickle-down effect impacting the Canadian game for years to come unless there is a return to some “normality”.
The two biggest impediments to competitive hockey are border closures and lack of fans. With both of them in place, with no signs of a change, hockey as we know it cannot exist and will not exist. The trickle-down will be that the high-level Canadian development programs that feeds the pro ranks with high-level North American hockey players will be a fraction of what it once was. In turn, you can expect the constant flow of excellent talent out of Canada heading to the pros to be significantly compromised.
You might think I’m overreacting but unfortunately I’m not, short of some substantial concessions on the part of the various governments creating barriers and restrictions to ice hockey.
The healthcare experts like Dr. Tam and Dr. Bonnie Henry have repeatedly indicated there is no end to the lockdown unless there is a vaccine or therapeutic breakthrough, none of which are anywhere near reality. Indeed, BC Health Minister Adrian Dix recently commented; “This pandemic that we are all tired of, so very tired of, will be going on now, we would expect, through 2021 into 2022”. If that wasn’t clear, Adrian Dix then commented; “This new normal is going to be in place for a long time.” Meanwhile you hear the various healthcare experts comment that any indoor gatherings should be restricted to 50 people or less despite nations like France allowing spectator sports up to 5000 people now and despite some US states allowing spectator sports as well.
Also, you have the border closures which, at this point, are running until September 21, 2020 and likely to continue indefinitely short of some miracle change in government policy.
Now how does that affect high-level hockey? You might not be aware but Junior A ice hockey is an integral part of the development system for the NHL/pros with approximately 33% of all NHLers coming through the Junior A route. You also have Major Junior which accounts for around 42% of all the NHLers so combined, the last statistics show about 75% of all the NHLers are coming through the high-level junior programs in North America.
So why does the border closure matter?
Hockey Canada and US Hockey have agreed that six US players can play on each Junior A team including BCHL team in a given season. The BCHL is considered the premier Junior A hockey league in Canada, bar nowhere. In order to maintain this high level of competition, which helps develop Canadian aspiring hockey players, the influx of high-level US talent is essential to the league. In 2019-2020, the NCAA Division 1 hockey program had 272 players from the BCHL in their ranks. Of those players, 127 came from the USA and only 66 from British Columbia so you can quickly see that some of the most talented players in this high-level league tend to come from the USA.
In the last few week, numerous USA hockey players that have been trying to cross the border into Canada for this upcoming season have been turned away. These hockey players all have negative COVID-19 tests not to mention strict quarantine protocols in place on arrival so that the risk of any sort of spike in cases of COVID 19 as a result of these players is virtually NIL.
The Canadian border guards are turning these young players away in a very aggressive manner as “non-essential travel” which saddens me especially when most are minors without the support of their parents at the border crossing. This is very un-Canadian! To think that their travel is “nonessential” is outrageous as well. Nonetheless, given the directions of the Canadian government, the influx of hockey talent into the Canadian programs is going to be severely reduced which, in turn, will lower the quality of the programs as the Canadian players will not be playing with and against some of the best players in North America.
Major Junior, it is expected, will have the same roadblock at the US borders for their players with a similar impact on competitiveness of the league and development of the Canadian players.
Then, in Major Junior and in Junior A, you have cross-border American teams playing in Canada or vice versa. The chances of these American teams being able to cross the border for the next few years is highly unlikely short of a rethink on the policies of the Canadian government. That is going to reduce the number of opportunities for Canadians due to less teams not to mention lower the quality of the leagues.
Competitiveness of the Junior leagues is not the only thing that’s going to be severely compromised under the COVID-19 lockdown protocols. The bigger issue is the viability of all the Junior leagues, whether they are Major Junior, Junior A or Junior B. In Junior A, the cost of providing a top-level program to an individual player is around $37,000 a year. The money needed to fund these high-level programs is generated almost exclusively through season tickets, game day tickets/revenues and sponsorships. The governments are not providing support at all and even though they are restricting spectators currently, the governments have no intention that I’m aware of to help any of the leagues survive.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if there is no fans in the stands and no TV revenues plus a limited amount of sponsors due to the struggling economy, the amount of revenues available to run a Junior team is significantly reduced. In my experience, over 75% of the revenue sources are gone meaning that the losses projected for running a full season would be well in excess of $500,000 in one season. With politicians like Adrian Dix boldly predicting the COVID-19 lockdown will continue into 2022, Junior teams can expect several seasons of massive loss, something that most teams will not be able to withstand. Without government monetary support or a significant change in the ability to have fans in the stadiums, my prediction is 50 to 75% of all Junior teams in Canada will go dark in the next 12 months. The ones that will survive have an ownership group that can withstand heavy losses.
As we headed to the 2020-2021 ice hockey season, not all is lost but there needs to be some serious changes in government policy and/or government funding otherwise our great development program of Junior hockey in BC and Canada will be a fraction of what it once was, which in turn, will compromise the quality of players being fed into the Pro leagues. When you are sitting in front of your TV in five years wondering why Canada has been relegated to the consolation division of the World Junior hockey tournament after getting blown out by European teams, reflect back on the government policies during COVID-19 that severely hindered development of our country’s elite athletes.
Hence, we are on a clear path of “Death of Ice Hockey as We Know it in Canada”.