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Overcoming COVID-19, other barriers ‘a wild ride’ says BCHL commissioner

Chris Hebb has dealt with a pandemic, cancelled games and travel issues since joining league
BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb (inset) has been part of the junior ‘A’ league since 2018. (Garrett James photo)

Back in 2018, a few months into his tenure as the new commissioner of the BC Hockey League, Chris Hebb said the learning curve had been a steep one, and he compared absorbing the new information to trying to drink from a fire hose.

In the years since, it hasn’t become a whole lot easier.

Hebb, a longtime sports executive with both Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment – the Vancouver Canucks’ former parent company – and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the NHL’s Maple Leafs and NBA’s Toronto Raptors, has had just one BCHL season that would be considered normal.

Following his rookie season in the junior ‘A’ hockey league’s top job, he presided over a season in which the playoffs were cancelled after the first round due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and after that, a season that was delayed for months and eventually turned into a 20-game ‘pod’ schedule, in which teams were grouped together in various parts of the province and only played each other, with no post-season tournament.

The ‘pod’ season did not include the league’s sole U.S.-based club, the Wenatchee Wild, due to border closure issues, just to throw another wrench into the plans.

And then there is the current season, in which the schedule has been in a state of constant upheaval due flooding and highway closures throughout the province, which restricted travel to the point where teams are not travelling outside of their conferences to play.

The Omicron COVID-19 variant is still very much an issue, too, and led to the cancellation of the league’s much anticipated 60th anniversary all-star festivities in Penticton, which were scheduled for this month.

“It’s been one thing after another,” said Hebb.

“Obviously, coming in and learning the league and getting that first season under our belt was good, but it just feels like we’ve been battling barriers ever since.

“I had a staff Zoom call… and we were saying it’ll be really nice when we actually get to run a league that’s playing under normal circumstances.”

While Hebb has plenty of experience in the sports business, he told Black Press Media that there was nothing that’s compared to what he and his team – as well as the league’s ownership groups, coaches and players – have had to deal with over the course of the last 22 months.

“The only thing that even comes close – and I don’t think it matches – is that I went through lockouts in professional sports, both on the basketball side and the hockey side,” he explained. “You had to manage those situations (without) knowing when it was going to end, and it’s out of your hands, so that’s similar.”

With regard to how the league has dealt with myriad issues this season, Hebb was quick to heap praise upon his staff – especially deputy commissioner Steve Cocker, who Hebb said has been the one in charge of rescheduling games.

“I’ve got a great right-hand man,” he said of Cocker.

Hebb also noted that the league’s owners – including the four new ownership groups that have come on board since he joined the BCHL, including the expansion Cranbrook Bucks – have also had to take more of a hands-on role than they otherwise would have.

“All of them have stepped up and worked on various committees,” he said.

“I’ve relied heavily on committees – it’s not the league office making these decisions, it’s the league office putting these decisions to the ownership. Our owners have been more engaged than they have been in the past, and I think that’s worked in our favor.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the BCHL created a return-to-play task force that has continually worked with the Provincial Health Office in an attempt to ensure that players have been able to play and that teams are following the appropriate guidelines.

That approach, Hebb noted, has led to an increased trust between the league and the PHO.

“We haven’t had much interaction with them this season because we understand the situation, and they know that we are going to do the right thing. That’s how we managed to get the ‘pod’ season last year – they trusted us.”

Since Day 1, Hebb said the goal of the league has been to play enough games that the players could be properly scouted in order to move on to the next level.

“Their window (in junior hockey) is closing and we needed to get them games. By the end of (last) season we felt pretty good about the number of games we were able to get our kids, especially compared to other leagues (across the country).”

The recent cancellation of the all-star weekend events in Penticton were a blow to the league – and the staff that worked tirelessly to organize it, Hebb said – but it was a tough decision that had to be made. The festivities were not cancelled outright – simply pushed forward to 2023.

“Omicron is a game-changer, and one of the pillars of our league is player safety – and that doesn’t mean just on the ice,” Hebb said, adding that he feels terrible for the players scheduled to play in this year’s event who won’t be in the league next season.

All players will at least be given their 2022 all-star jerseys, he noted.

“It was going to be a fantastic celebration, it was going to be great. And it still is going to be great – we’re just going to have it in our 61st year, instead of our 60th,” he said.

Despite all the obstacles Hebb has faced since taking the commissioner job – he replaced longtime commish John Grisdale, who retired – it wasn’t enough to dissuade him from signing on for more. His initial three-year contract expired last summer, at which point he signed on for another term.

“It’s been wild ride,” he said.

“We had some real momentum going with our league, and then, COVID came in and kind of delayed it, but we’re still going to grow the BCHL.”

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