Eight 2005-born, second-year bantam hockey players from Kamloops left the city this season to pursue their dreams elsewhere: seven for the Abbotsford-based Yale Hockey Academy Lions and one for the Kelowna-based Okanagan Rockets.
Several parents spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain their decisions, reasoning explored in a Tattle of Hastings column that appeared in KTW on Nov. 27.
The BC Hockey Zone program came into existence as a pilot project in 2016-2017, in part as an answer to hockey academies that are hoovering players away from their home cities.
Soon after, the KMHA relinquished control of its tier 1 bantam team.
The BC Hockey-run Okanagan Mainline Amateur Hockey Association Thompson Zone Blazers were formed, with Kamloops among regions in the catchment area.
Had the eight players stayed, Thompson would likely have iced a team in the BC Hockey Major Bantam AAA Pilot Program league, which was established this season.
Instead, the 2019-2020 top-tier bantam Blazers toil in the AA league.
The major bantam league is part of the BC Hockey plan to provide a quality alternative to academies and the circuit in which they play — the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL).
Discussion continues today, this time with insight from BC Hockey chief executive officer Barry Petrachenko, Kamloops Minor Hockey Association chairman of the board Cam Rubel, former top-tier bantam Blazers’ head coach Kyle Allan and Stu MacGregor, western regional scout for the Victoria Royals, former Kamloops Blazers’ general manager and former head scout for the Edmonton Oilers.
CAN THEY SYMPATHIZE?
Petrachenko, the father of a 15-year-old boy, said parents were faced with a difficult decision, asked to move their kids — in their WHL Bantam Draft year — to a first-year, unproven operation.
He understands their dilemma.
Those players had already developed strong relationships with each other and Yale staff, most notably bantam prep head coach Brad Bowen, who became familiar with the Kamloopsians who toiled under him during the spring for the Vancouver Selects.
“They probably faced a scenario of, hey, we trust this guy and we don’t know what the heck could be around the corner from this end,” Petrachenko said.
“And, who knows, maybe other people were influencing, as well, to say, ‘Hey, you should maybe worry about what could be around that corner because it’s a sure thing over here.’”
MacGregor is a supporter of the major bantam league and wants to see a Kamloops-based AAA squad in the BC Hockey ranks, but can see why parents had concerns.
“The problem was more so on the operational end of things from BC Hockey in not naming coaches early enough so the programs could be sold to the parents,” MacGregor said.
“That and then getting quality ice times, having the personnel, the skill people … All of these people are in place in Kamloops, but you have to tie it together and Hockey BC has not tied that together, which is why I think people left.”
Rubel said the zone program concept is a phenomenal idea, but KMHA board members, parents and players are disappointed with how it has been implemented in the Thompson Zone.
He was asked about the KMHA’s future participation in the zone program.
“It’s definitely unsure right now,” he said. “Parents are ultimately concerned about some of the issues that have been happening with BC Hockey, the transparency of the program in general, when it comes to budgets. And they have questions around individuals who have been responsible for leading the zone program.”
Added Allan: “There are definitely some things that haven’t gone really well there, just sort of BC Hockey and Kamloops minor hockey working together. It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions. The ice time thing was a big one.”
Ice times assigned to the 2018-2019 top-tier bantam Blazers left much to be desired.
The lack of available ice in the city is in part to blame, a problem that affects many user groups in the Tournament Capital.
One parent suggested politics was involved, saying the KMHA decided to look after its own programs first, assigning less desirable time slots to the Blazers because of their BC Hockey affiliation.
“You can’t have your major bantam teams practising at 9:30 on a Thursday night,” MacGregor said. “You just can’t. That is the type of ice time they were getting.”
Allan said squabbling was a factor.
“We were caught in the middle of these two organizations battling over ice time,” Allan said, referencing BC Hockey and the KMHA.
“We had a dressing room at Memorial Arena that was taken away. The fighting between the two organizations was a little tiring.”
Petrachenko told KTW in December the two sides have had differences, but the relationship is improving.
“Minor hockey has had to adjust,” Petrachenko said, noting similar growing pains took place with the major midget Blazers. “Kamloops minor hockey, just like every one of our minor hockey associations, has had to grow comfortable with that.
“It’s a struggle. No. 1, it’s change and No. 2, it requires teamwork from groups that haven’t maybe worked together long enough to build trust and understanding.
“The relationship is good at this point. Not to say there won’t be bumpy spots.”
More turbulence has arrived, judging by what Rubel told KTW on Monday.
“There is significant room for improvement,” he said.
Petrachenko said providing suitable ice times might be the No. 1 issue BC Hockey staff and volunteers deal with on a daily basis.
“It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg situation,” he said. “Until you have the programs and children at the door not being able to get in to play on the ice, the city won’t provide the ice. We do that dance.
“But also, we have to develop our programs and relationships with our minor hockey associations to ensure we’re maximizing ice usage.”
Petrachenko has ideas and said BC Hockey is listening to parents’ concerns.
“Maybe we have to look at times during the day or programs that work with skills academies that we can run through our local schools,” he said. “We have those programs in a box ready to go at our disposal if we need to utilize them.
“In the long term, we want to build our programs so the demand for ice makes it a no-brainer that providers will either build more ice or find ways to get us more ice.”
At Yale, the facility is a one-stop shop for school and ice time during the day, an advantage for the academy program, said both Allan and MacGregor.
Some parents noted a gap between superior coaching at Yale and what was being offered by the Thompson Blazers.
Allan, who said he stepped away from the job after last season, admits the slight was tough to read.
“I wont lie. It stings a bit. I put six years into the program and we were probably one of the more successful minor hockey programs in the last six years I’d been doing this. And to be the only area sort of left out of that major bantam league, that stung,” he said.
“My big thing is I just don’t understand how a parent can send a 13- and 14-year-old kid away to play hockey. I’m not a parent, but to me that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“It’s a pretty important time in their lives to go and send them to live with friends, strangers, family to chase a dream. It’s a cool dream to have, but they’re kids once, right?
“It was sort of funny to hear them talk about it, like, ‘Oh, we had to leave.’ It’s like, no, you didn’t.”
MacGregor weighed in on coaching, noting there are great bench bosses in the CSSHL and major bantam league.
“But their [academy] programs they put together are better, because of the skill development, the time on the ice and the opportunity and time to improve,” he said. “That’s what BC Hockey has to provide.”
Petrachenko notices an uptick each year in BC Hockey coaching quality.
“Overall, the coaches of players at the AAA and accredited-school levels are, for the most part, on par,” he said.
“There are always standouts on either side and people who devote more or less time.”
Petrachenko is seeing a transformation.
“We still operate a little bit on the volunteer model at the AAA level, but the biggest change is our coaches are now up-and-comers, rather than longtime volunteers who have been in the game for 40 years,” he said.
“Our coaches are pretty current and keen on making a name for their teams and their careers. That’s a good thing.”
Allan said some parents criticized him for his dedication to providing equal playing time.
“You give players an opportunity to play. That’s what they’re here for. I think it’s a good thing,” Allan said.
“The hard part for some people is they’re OK with it so long as it’s not their kid that’s not playing. Then they have a problem with that.”
Allan said some parents are placing too much emphasis on the WHL Bantam Draft.
“It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get drafted. People think it is. It’s really not,” Allan said. “Go back to Johnny Ludvig. He wasn’t drafted. He sticks it out here and look what he’s doing now.
“It’s a status thing. My kid got drafted in this round. Agents, too, are another one. My kid’s got an agent and he got drafted in this round. It’s like a competition. Everybody is trying to one-up everybody.”
One parent projected his son would not be exposed to quality opposition on a regular basis if he played this season in the major bantam league.
He said the Blazers may not have earned invites to all of the top-end tournaments, where scouts tend to gather, and the CSSHL schedule would likely be a greater catalyst for improvement.
MacGregor and Allan have qualms with that viewpoint.
“If you look at the academy programs, some of them are the top programs and others are just bottom feeders,” MacGregor said.
“The problem is that a player who leaves a club program and goes to an academy and is a first-line player in a club program, developing leadership skills and getting more opportunity to play in key times, ends up being a third-line player at an academy and doesn’t get that opportunity.”
Added Allan: “They released the tournament list. I think we would have got in, based on who they accepted. I can’t say that for sure, but based on the talent and high-profile players we would have had, we would have got in.”
Petrachenko said scouts do a great job scouring the BC Hockey ranks for talent.
“It has definitely been a determining factor in choices families have made and it’s been an error we have all made as parents of players over the years because I’ve been around the game long enough to know there is nobody who I can ever say didn’t get seen,” Petrachenko said.
“Yes, marquee tournaments are important and we need to make that part of our programming, but we don’t always have to make that the only reason for making a hockey decision. There are a whole bunch of scouts out there whose job it is to see people. If they don’t see someone and someone else does, then they’re not doing their job.”
MacGregor noted he recently made a trip to watch a bantam AA player, thanks in part to BC Hockey’s improving website and stats tracking.
“You could say it’s a weaker league, but Darcy Tucker came from a weaker league. Shane Doan came from a weaker league,” he said. “If your players are good, if your team is good, scouts go and find them.”
Watching eight of Kamloops’ finest leave town was tough to swallow for Rubel and the KMHA.
“Losing those players, not only as a hockey community but, more importantly, from a parent standpoint, a school standpoint and as friends, we’re forcing kids away at a younger age than we should be,” Rubel said.
“Kamloops minor hockey has heard a message, loud and clear, from existing and past parents and players. We’re definitely carrying that message ahead in order to make the right decision for future years. This is live.
“We need to know the direction that BC Hockey is ultimately going to choose with its zone program.”
Each Parent who spoke to KTW agreed it was about $10,000 for their kids to play for the 2018-2019 bantam AA Thompson Blazers, that price an all-in estimate that includes tournament fees and extra-curricular training that existed outside of regular team programming.
BC Hockey sent an email to KTW outlining team fees for that season: “$2,900 league, $3,000 team fees and then $984 back each as refund from one fundraiser. Total cost $5,000. Team played roughly 50 games.”
Allan said $10,000 was a better estimate of actual total cost for the season.
Petrachenko was crystal clear in his assessment.
“The AAA program, the cost of it, is one of the most misquoted costs, especially because the cost of our program has become a bit of a negotiation tool for other programs, whether that’s junior or accredited school programs,” he said.
“The biggest challenge is when people think the cost is the same because people who think the cost is close or the same between an accredited school and a AAA program, it sways the decision. Anybody who hears that is being misled. It doesn’t make mathematical sense.”
Petrachenko trumpeted a break-even budget that aims to keep costs down.
“We are not operating these AAA teams to generate a profit for future years,” he said.
“The difference with choosing the school route is you are dealing with full-time coaches and minimum operating standards that require access to schooling and other facets. It’s not their fault, but it’s going to be more expensive to provide those services.
“We work with our accredited-school members to try to help them keep costs down, but at the same time the standards we require currently and in the future, we know it’s not going make the cost any less. You pay for what you get.”
Yale charges $14,500 per season, but estimates varied on how much Kamloops parents end up paying when including billet-family agreements and other travel-related and gear expenditures.
Ballpark numbers from parents ranged from $18,000 to $23,000.
MacGregor noted some academies charge much more than Yale.
“The dollars spent is crazy — absolutely crazy,” he said.
MacGregor is concerned about the absence of a major bantam team.
“It’s going to hurt the Kamloops major midget program down the road,” MacGregor said. “It’s going to affect the kids having to leave.
“The new league is new and there are some things that need to be done to continue to improve it. The academies are ahead at this point, but there is potential for it to be a very good league and a very good development opportunity for kids.”
MacGregor said there is opportunity in Kamloops to involve School District 73 in elite hockey programming, allowing players to practise during the day and play for their club teams.
“Ideally, there would be a major bantam team here,” he said. “The best players who are Kamloops-developed players are playing on it. BC Hockey, in conjunction with Kamloops minor hockey, is able to provide a product, an opportunity for young players to develop and be the very best they can be.
“I think you’d rather raise your child yourself than have a billet at that age, but that’s just my personal opinion.”
Petrachenko said the outlook is promising.
“We could have had a great season this year with that group of players from Kamloops,” he said. “They could have stayed at home. That’s what made me the saddest, to hear the stories of the family where the child has left home because they felt they had to. I understand the feeling. I’m not criticizing it at all. That’s what families face.”
The BC Hockey CEO said it’s his opinion 13- and 14-year-old players should be staying close to home.
“We take that job seriously of trying to provide that option,” he said. “Ideally, we would provide a school-based option for everybody in the province that was close to home and a zone or a minor-hockey option.
“We think having that team in the Thompson will also clarify for the players who want to go and get a schooling experience around their hockey, we have the accredited-school programs. For the players who want to stay at home and play high-calibre hockey and not have it connected to schooling, we want to provide that, too.”
“We’ll have a great program there next year.”
Rubel said the KMHA’s future in the zone program remains up in the air.
Jan Antons was last week named Thompson Zone GM, a move that has the full backing of KMHA, but the board chair said members have directed the association to seek more changes.
“The way the zone program was conceptually brought to us by representatives from BC hockey compared to where it is now, I think is a pretty substantial delta,” Rubel said.
“I certainly don’t think it’s been as successful as it could have been.”