The British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) Board of Governors announced May 1st that the league, along with all eighteen member teams, will end their agreement with Hockey Canada and leave Hockey Canada effective June 1, 2023. The move also means the BCHL will no longer be affiliated with British Columbia Hockey (BC Hockey), which oversees minor hockey, including the traditional U18 feeder leagues for the BCHL. Although support was not unanimous among teams, the Board of Governors voted in favor of the move, which comes after five years of discussions with Hockey Canada about changes the BCHL maintains would improve the Canadian Junior A product and increase player choice. The BCHL ceased participating in the nation-wide Canadian Junior Hockey League in 2021, declining to send a team to the Centennial Cup at the end of the season. The BCHL’s messaging around the move is strongly weighted towards the narrative that leaving Hockey Canada will allow the league to offer enhanced player advancement opportunities. BCHL Chairman Graham Fraser explained the move in the May 1st league press release this way, “(W)e aspire to do more for players and to provide a higher level of hockey for our fans. Under the current system, that’s just not possible.”
The BCHL identified three major challenges to league development/player development perpetuated by the current Hockey Canada system. First, young players must choose between pursing Major Junior level hockey, which renders them ineligible for NCAA hockey because the NCAA considers the Major Junior Canadian Hockey League (CHL) and its member leagues to be professional. This means Canadian players who want to retain NCAA eligibility look to Tier II Junior A leagues like the BCHL. Hockey Canada restricts U18 players to the Tier II league in their province of residence. The BCHL maintains that this geographic restriction does not protect players’ best interests because it restricts choice. If a player does not think he has a competitive option in his home province, he is forced – as the BCHL puts it – to pursue Junior A options in an American league such as the Tier I United States Hockey League (USHL) or the Tier II North American Hockey League (NAHL). Some Canadian players do find their way south of the border. Last season, forty-four Canadian players played in the USHL, while fifty-two players played in the NAHL.
The BCHL maintains that removing provincial recruiting restrictions, by allowing teams to pursue the best Canadian, American, and European talent equally, will lead to a better on-ice product and more NCAA and USport offers. BCHL Chairman Graham Fraser said in the league’s press release, “we are entering a new era that will eliminate barriers and change the landscape of junior hockey in Canada.” BCHL teams are now able to recruit players from provinces with existing Junior A leagues – notably the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Manitoba Junior Hockey League, and the various Ontario Junior A leagues.
The BCHL has addressed one of the major potential issues with their move – insurance – while not providing a strong response to concerns that players, instead of having more choice, could end up with less. One of Hockey Canada’s major functions is to provide insurance to leagues and teams, and catastrophic coverage to players. The BCHL states in their expanded FAQ section that, “the BCHL’s insurance broker is Westland Insurance. Through the process, a comprehensive insurance plan for all players, teams, and staff was created under the guidance of Mark Woodall who has worked with many amateur and professional sports clients including the Canadian Football League.”
While there are certainly valid criticisms of Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, one of the major reasons for operating under their umbrellas is the existence of defined transfer rules between leagues and countries. Whether these rules create a monopoly system that unfairly impedes non-sanctioned leagues is a separate issue. For practical purposes, the strongest criticism of the BCHL’s move is that, because of these transfer restrictions, players choosing the BCHL route might actually find themselves with extremely limited options. As Joseph Kolodziej, an advisor for the Hockey Talent Management group, who no doubt has his own biases, points out, it is very debatable if the BCHL is on par with the USHL or the NAHL. Nothing is stopping those leagues from drafting BCHL players, and in fact, thirteen BCHL players were taken in the USHL draft this year. If those players end up in the USHL this coming season, their former BCHL teams will not receive any compensation. Hockey Canada/USA Hockey transfer agreements govern transfers between member league teams. Teams that have players from Hockey Canada leagues move to the USHL or the NAHL receive $4000 per player. Now, BCHL teams will get nothing in compensation.
For young players, a huge consideration should be the internal transfer rules for non-Hockey Canada leagues. If a player goes to the BCHL and is cut after September 30th, the player cannot go to any Hockey Canada sanctioned program, although he would be free to play in an American league. BC Hockey will not be allowing U18 AAA player affiliates for BCHL teams going forward because, again, if a player is cut after September 30th, he would not be able to return to a Hockey Canada program. This seems to restrict player movement, not expand it.
It will be interesting to see how this move plays out for the BCHL and how it shapes the Junior hockey landscape going forward. Everyone claims to be in favor of player choice and have the best interest of the players at the fore.