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Coquitlam Express back on track as BCHL to play abbreviated season

The BC Hockey League announced Friday it will play an abbreviated 2021 season after receiving approval for its return to play plan from provincial and regional health authorities.
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The Coquitlam Express swept the Langley Rivermen in the first round of the 2019/'20 BCHL playoffs before the league cancelled the remainder of the season last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Coquitlam Express are back on track. But they’ll be playing their condensed BC Hockey League season in Burnaby.

The Scotiabank Barn (formerly known as Canlan 8 Rinks) is one of five pod arenas around the province where groupings of three or four teams will begin play in April.

The locations of all the pods, and which of the league’s 17 teams based in British Columbia will be assigned to which pods is to be announced after teams have declared their intention to participate or opt out of the abbreviated season. Further details, as well as a schedule will be released “in the coming weeks,” according to a press release issued by the league Friday morning. Media reports Thursday suggested the season would last 18 to 20 games, wrapping up May 6. Fans will not be permitted to attend games.

Tali Campbell, general manager of the Express, said the whole organization is looking forward to getting back on the ice for competitive games. The team last played an opponent Nov. 7, a 5-2 win over the Chilliwack Chiefs, before new public health orders forced suspension of exhibition games for teams based in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal health regions. Two weeks later those orders were expanded across the province and all teams went back to just holding socially-distanced practices with an emphasis on individual skills.

Campbell said players will go into a two-week lockdown immediately after Friday’s practice. They’ll be confined to their billet homes, with no team activities. The resumption of games will be preceded by a week-long training camp.

“There’s excitement,” Campbell told the Tri-City News from a boisterous dressing room. “Now the real work starts.”

That work will include filling out the team’s roster after several players left or were traded to teams in other junior leagues that have resumed playing.

The Express also has a new interim coach, Adam Nugent-Hopkins, who stepped behind the bench last week after Dan Cioffi resigned.

Campbell said the Express made a pitch for its home arena — Poirier Sports and Leisure Complex — to be one of the host pods, but the city of Coquitlam told him it needed to take the ice out for lacrosse season. He said there was also a concern about access with the Forum across the street set to become a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.

Playing in Burnaby will be a bit of déja-vu for the Express, as the team was based at the Copeland Arena from 2005 to 2010, while its facility in Coquitlam was renovated and expanded.

In 2006, the Burnaby Express won the Royal Bank Cup national Junior A championship.

BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb said the league’s return to play is the culmination of “months and months” of hard work and negotiations with public health officials.

“The entire process has always been about our players and giving them the best chance to get back to playing games and showcasing their skills,” Hebb said in a press release.

The league said it has also hired a chief medical officer to oversee all COVID-19 safety protocols, including managing the quarantine period as well as testing for all players and team staff.

During the league’s exhibition schedule that began last Sept. 25 and comprised a total of 89 games before it was shut down in November, only a member of the Surrey Eagles tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in the cancellation of two games, including one between the Chilliwack Chiefs and Coquitlam Express. The Chiefs had played the Eagles the previous night.

In February, the  Prince George Spruce Kings announced it had suspended team activities for two weeks after several players tested positive.

The league’s only U.S.-based team, the Wenatchee Wild, suspended operations for the entire season because of the border closure.