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Junior hockey: BCHL announces plan to fly teams to U.S. to play Wenatchee Wild

The B.C. Hockey League has come up with a unique plan to play games across the currently closed Canada-U.S. border.

On Friday, the junior-A league announced that teams will be flying into Washington state for games against the Wenatchee Wild, then will be busing back.

The league is comprised of 18 teams: 17 in B.C., and one in Washington state.

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Wenatchee joined the BCHL in 2015-16 and has been a model franchise, having yet to post a losing season while also winning the league title in 2017-18. But last year, the Wild were scrubbed from the BCHL schedule because of the closed border.

Now, they’re back in action, courtesy of a plan that will see B.C. teams fly into Seattle and get picked up by the Wenatchee team bus. After being transported to Wenatchee, the team bus will then drop them back off in Canada.

“With the land border closed for Canadians travelling south to the U.S., the league has introduced a plan that will see visiting teams fly into Washington State and return back across the land border,” the BCHL said in a press release.

“Players and staff travelling across the border will follow all COVID-19 guidelines, including providing a negative test before crossing into the U.S. and before returning to Canada.”

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The league said the closed border also forced the league to adjust its regular-season schedule.

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Alberni Valley, Cowichan Valley, Nanaimo and Surrey were each slated to play one game in Wenatchee this season. Now, though, those games are scratched.

Instead, Alberni Valley, Cowichan Valley, Nanaimo and Surrey will play those games amongst themselves, while Wenatchee will have its 54-game schedule reduced to 50.

“Due to the unbalanced schedule caused by these changes, the BCHL regular-season standings will be determined by point percentage rather than total points,” said the league.

Wenatchee general manager Bliss Littler said losing four home games will be a financial hit, but it’s better than the alternative: Not playing any games at all.

“We’re excited and it’s a big commitment (by the BCHL’s board of governors), the league owners and our team owners,” Littler told Global News. “We’re awfully excited about it.”

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Littler said all players entering the U.S. will undergo two sets of testing, including one that will allow them to re-enter Canada.

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Notably, the Wild are currently in B.C., having played in Trail on Thursday night (a 5-4 shootout win) and will visit Cranbrook on Friday night.

The BCHL regular season starts Oct. 8 with seven games.

“(The league) thinks outside the box,” said Littler. “They thought (last year’s pod season) was very important and they think it’s very important for Wenatchee to participate this year.”

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On a side note, with the Seattle Kraken about to embark on its first NHL season, Littler was asked if there’s been hockey hype in Wenatchee. Seattle opened its exhibition season by hosting Vancouver in nearby Spokane, home of the WHL Chiefs.

“It’s way too early (to tell),” said Littler. “But in every California city that got an NHL team, and what’s happened in Las Vegas, it definitely helps youth hockey, and it definitely cultivates a lot more hockey fans.

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“I would think that in the next few years, we’ll start to see where hockey becomes a lot more popular in the state of Washington than it is right now.”

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