The Kamloops Blazers will return to the ice later this month after a hiatus of more than a year induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian has been part of the B.C. Division return-to-play plan, which was approved on Tuesday (March 2) by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Game action will begin on March 26, with the 24-game season slated to conclude on May 12.
The Blazers, Vancouver Giants and Prince George Cougars will play out of the Kamloops hub, with Sandman Centre as home base.
Those travelling with the Cougars and Giants will reside in the Sandman Signature Hotel. The Blazers’ players will stay with billets in Kamloops.
In the Kelowna hub, the Rockets and Victoria Royals will play out of Prospera Place. The Royals will stay in a hotel. Kelowna’s players will stay with billets.
Clubs are permitted to travel directly between each hub for game play, with no stops permitted between the two cities.
Christian spoke to KTW about a morale-boost for Kamloops, concerns over community transmission and what went on behind the scenes with himself, Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran and WHL commissioner Ron Robison.
KTW: What are your thoughts on the decision to green-light the return-to-play plan?
CHRISTIAN: I think it’s excellent. For those athletes, in particular the 20-year-olds and 19-year-olds, it’s almost a season gone. In the way that system works, they need that exposure if they’re going to go on to the next level and they need to be able to play out their WHL careers if they’re not. This hiatus that we’ve been in is not healthy for anybody and particularly would be difficult for those athletes. The thing that affects me as a resident of Kamloops is getting the Blazers back on the ice and giving us something to hope for and cheer for. This pandemic has been a long haul for everyone and we need a bit of a bright spot. Having the Blazers compete, albeit in a limited schedule, is going to give us some hope, something to cheer about and some useful distraction.
KTW: How did you balance concerns with safety in the community and the importance of the return of the Blazers?
CHRISTIAN: I’ve been talking to [Blazers’ president] Donnie Moores all throughout, in terms of what was going on with the WHL. The Blazers are an important part of the fabric of Kamloops. Recently, when the hub cities notion was being developed, they were working that in terms of COVID-19 protocols they would need to keep their players safe. We were looking at protocols in Sandman Centre and how that would work. Once they were at a place where they felt they had a really solid case together, they put that in front of Mayor Basran and myself.
I checked with IHA [Interior Health Authority] people about community transmission in Kamloops and when would be a good time to get in front of this, in terms of supporting it. Colin wrote to commissioner Robison and so did I. They used those as part of their submission to Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer. That took some time for her to adjudicate those and assess those risks. She came up with the decision yesterday and I think it’s the right decision.
KTW: Testing is a huge part of it and you can look at the Central Division, which has not had any positive tests, but there will still be concerns over community transmission. The Blazers will be playing against other teams and then going back to stay with their billets in the community. What are your thoughts on that?
CHRISTIAN: We can learn from the curling bubble [in Calgary] and the successes in the NHL and the lack of success in the NBA. The more interaction you have with the community, the greater the risk is; however, in these communities, particularly in Kelowna and Kamloops, and I think that is perhaps why they’re not in Abbotsford or other places, these communities have relatively low community transmission.
There is also an onus on the players. They’re not in the community, going out to the Red Collar or Wendy’s. They’re going to be on a strict team-imposed regimen, in terms of their safety and deportment. The other teams are essentially going to be sequestered in the Sandman Hotel and I believe it’s the Capri Hotel in Kelowna. Those will be the two places where there could be some interaction, but again, the WHL has anticipated that and has requirements in place for those properties. At this stage of the pandemic, this is an opportunity that is, on balance, the right way to go for the communities, the organizations and, in particular, for the kids.
KTW: What do you think this does for morale in the city?
CHRISTIAN: For myself, on our opening day, I’m going to be wearing my Blazers jersey and I suspect everyone that has one around the city will be gladly and proudly pulling it out and putting it on. Yeah, we’re not going to be in the building and, yeah, we’re not going to have that feeling of the roar, but we are going be able to see it through radio and video and the coverage of it. It’s going to be, as I say, something for us to focus on that is kind of normal. We’ve been really looking for something that is kind of normal for the past 11, 12 months. This is starting that path to recovery from my perspective.