Big league dreams on ice as pandemic checks junior hockey

·4 min read

As the Penticton Vees daily morning practice begins, some players head to the stands to watch, some warm-up on ice.

COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have divided this B.C. Hockey League (BCHL) team. Those 18 and under can get in their skills and drills on ice, but under B.C. health regulations all adults are banned from indoor sports.

Defenceman Jack Bar is happy to make this arbitrary age cut.

"Hockey is essentially part of my identity," said the 18-year-old.

And it could also be Bar's professional future. The 1.87-metre, 88-kilogram Newmarket, Ont. native is ranked as one of the top 32 players in the 2021 National Hockey League Draft.

This was supposed to be his year to shine, an opportunity he's worked for since his dad laced up his skates as a two-year-old.

"It's a season I've been waiting for pretty much my whole life," Bar said "It's every kid's dream to get drafted into the NHL and hopefully play there one day.

"It would be a dream come true."

Hockey season on hold

But, like hundreds of other junior players across Canada, Bar's hockey dreams have been put on ice as leagues adapt and respond to ever-changing pandemic restrictions.

All official games are now on hold, and the Vees don't have enough young players to play 5-on-5 against themselves.

"(The hardest part) is just missing that competitive edge throughout the season. We're not playing any teams, we're not playing any games," said Bar. "The most fun thing about hockey is winning against those teams, those battles. Missing out on that is tough."

Every game missed is also a missed opportunity to show NHL scouts that he's worth taking on draft day.

Junior teams struggle to adapt

Fred Harbinson, the head hoach, general manager, and president of the Penticton Vees understands the players' ambitions, and this year's disappointment.

"There's all this excitement, and then 'boom,'" Harbinson said. "All of the sudden the game that you love and have played your whole life has now been taken away. And at such a critical time."

Jack Murray/Penticton Vees
Jack Murray/Penticton Vees

The Penticton Vees, a Junior A franchise, were championship contenders when the pandemic shut down last season.

"Lets put it this way: it is supposed to be one of the most important years of (their) life," he said.

Only goes by once

Harbinson is responsible for helping players' skills and their mental health at a time when they are still developing. He fears the pandemic could cost the sport of hockey a cohort of on-ice talent.

"I think there's going to be lasting implications, and it goes further than 16-year-olds. It goes down to young kids that are losing development, or get discouraged, and frustrated," Harbinson says.

"This is affecting all our kids."

Before indoor sport restrictions came into place, the Vees played 14 pre-season games and won a local tournament, the Okanagan Cup.

During that time a player gained the attention of a scout and landed a college scholarship, which Harbinson said are the type of opportunities the team is looking for, for players.

He said, for a moment, with games being played, it seemed like business as usual.

"Once the puck hit the ice you kind of forgot about [the pandemic], and it just became hockey and it became competition," said Harbinson. "It's almost like the drug you need, that competition."

Stickhandling the season

Both the BCHL and the Western Hockey Leagure hope to resume the season sometime in January.

In the meantime, teams like the Penticton Vees are scrambling to make up for lost time on-ice, and lost revenue in the stands.

"Financially, we could sell out every game next year and we're still going to be feeling the effects of what's gone on here in the last year," said Harbinson.

Meanwhile, Jack Bar is just trying to stay in shape, physically and mentally.

And he's keeping his calendar clear for the 2021 NHL entry draft, delayed by a month and now scheduled for July 23.

"For all my hard work to pay off, and for that dream to come true?" mused Bar. "It would mean everything."

Still Bar has a backup plan if his professional draft dreams are delayed. He's been accepted to Harvard, and has committed to play hockey in the Ivy league.