Fin Williams added: “We still have guys without scholarships who want to show what they can do out there. This assures that everyone will have a chance to be seen.”

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Penticton Vees forward Fin Williams said it was like a championship celebration when his team got word that the B.C. Hockey League season was back on.

“It was the same type of energy in the room as when we won the Okanagan Cup,” Williams said Friday morning, referring to Penticton claiming the exhibition tournament back in November. “It was all cheers, high fives, handshakes.

“I wasn’t even able to sleep last night, to be honest.”

The teams told the players on Thursday night. The league made it official Friday morning, sending out a press release stating that the provincial health office had signed off on the league’s return-to-play plan.

The teams will play what the league is calling a “pod,’ model with three or four teams together in five different locations across the province. The condensed schedule will begin in early April. Pods are expected to be in Port Alberni, Penticton, Vernon, Burnaby and Chilliwack.

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Fans won’t be permitted in arenas for games.

The league was meeting Saturday afternoon to see if any team of the 17 active teams were going to opt out. The Wenatchee Wild, the league’s lone American team, had opted out in the fall due to regulations in Washington state and issues with the border.

The Athletic’s Rick Dhaliwal was reporting that the Langley Rivermen were going to opt out this time.

Commissioner Chris Hebb told Brian Wiebe of the BCHL Network that the league will pay for additional COVID-19 test and that “it’s our intention to test our players after they come out of quarantine and hopefully we don’t have to test them again after that.”

Ted Clarke of the Prince George Citizen reports that the Prince George Spruce Kings, Trail Smoke Eaters, Powell River Kings and Cranbrook Bucks are expected to stay in hotels in their pod cities while the other clubs will continue to be housed with billet families. Clarke added the aforementioned four hotel teams will receive financial assistance to cover their extra costs.

Mario Bartel of the Tri-City-City News reports that Coquitlam Express’ Porier Sport and Leisure Complex home rink is taking out its ice to get ready for lacrosse season so the Express will instead be a host team at the Scotiabank Barn in Burnaby.

The BCHL had played exhibition games in empty arenas from September until November, but provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry brought in restrictions to combat rising COVID-19 cases then that included no games between rival teams and no travel for sports. That left BCHL teams in strictly practice mode.

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The players paid fees to help with team costs throughout the season. Those fees have never been made public.

The five B.C. teams in the Western Hockey League had their return-to-play approved on March 1. They’re playing a 24-game schedule starting March 26 out of hubs in Kelowna and Kamloops. The Vancouver Giants and Prince George Cougars are staying at a hotel in Kamloops, the Victoria Royals are staying at a hotel in Kelowna. The Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers are remaining at their billet homes.

The WHL didn’t have its teams reconvene until their return-to-play was passed. Vancouver Giants defenceman Alex Kannok Leipert has admitted that made it easier on them compared to their BCHL, who were “going through the day-to-day, not really knowing what was next.”

“It’s been tough to stay focussed the past couple of months. It’s been mentally challenging,” said Williams, 17, a North Vancouver native who’s Penticton’s captain and is committed to the University of Michigan

“It’s hard not getting into game action. We still have guys without scholarships who want to show what they can do out there. This assures that everyone will have a chance to be seen.”

Merritt Centennials director of hockey operations John Stuart was quick to praise commissioner Chris Hebb and other league staff for “working so hard and never giving up hope.” He also lauded the league’s return-to-play task force “who put in a heckuva lot of work.”

“I’m just ecstatic for the kids and particularly for the 20 year olds, because for some of them this will be the last competitive hockey that they get to play,” Stuart said. “I’m ecstatic for the parents. This wasn’t cheap for them. But they stuck with us.”

The BCHL teams and the five WHL teams from this province had banded together to ask the government for financial assistance. The leagues are asking for $9.5 million combined. It’s believed that $6.5 million would go to the WHL, an $3 million to the BCHL.

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