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HomeNewsCranbrook Bucks embrace unique and unprecedented challenges ahead of inaugural BCHL season

Cranbrook Bucks embrace unique and unprecedented challenges ahead of inaugural BCHL season

Lacing up in Penticton on Saturday, April 3rd, the Cranbrook Bucks are finally destined to make their debut in the BC Hockey League, a regular season game that has now been 17 months in the making.

Announcing the newest BCHL franchise in October 2019, the Bucks were set to make their inaugural appearance last fall. Instead, they had to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and a delay to their first regular season. Even without fans in the stands and no home game in Cranbrook, April 3rd is still going to be a monumental day for the league’s newest hockey club.

When word came down from the BCHL that their COVID-19 Safety Plan was approved by the Province, it was music to the ears of everyone throughout the league, but especially those in Cranbrook.

Cranbrook Bucks Owner Nathan Lieuwen (L) and Cranbrook Bucks Head Coach and GM Ryan Donald (R) at Memorial Arena on Tuesday, September 1st, 2020 for the team’s inaugural Rookie Camp. (Bradley Jones, MyEastKootenayNow.com staff)

“It’s kind of a testament to the resilience and the patience of our group,” said Ryan Donald, Head Coach and General Manager of the Cranbrook Bucks. “Our guys spent the winter and really bought into just kind of controlling what they can control in their own lives and what was in front of them day-to-day, obviously holding out optimism that we’d be able to get up and running.”

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On Friday, March 12th the BCHL announced the league would proceed with a shortened five-week season. Then on Tuesday, March 23rd the BCHL unveiled its season schedule across five regional hub cities. With five pods, each team will get to play 20 games, a far cry from what has hoped for in the winter, but an accomplishment still celebrated around British Columbia.

“Games are games at this point. I think if we had rewound the tape back to January when we were kind of in the thick of it and not knowing if, when, where, or how we were ever going to get to play this season – if you told us we could play the same team 40 straight times our guys would have taken it,” Donald told MyEastKootenayNow.com. “They’re excited to play and that’s the biggest thing.”

MORE: Cranbrook Bucks to have inaugural BCHL season after all (March 12, 2021)

MORE: BC Hockey League unveils 2020/21 season schedule (March 23, 2021)

The Cranbrook Bucks join the Trail Smoke Eaters in Penticton as the Vees host a three-team pod for the shortened season. And while there is plenty of happiness and joy for the upcoming BCHL season, there is still the lingering truth that the entire process hasn’t been easy for the teams economically, or for the players emotionally and mentally.

Noah Leibl signing his player agreement with the BCHL’s Cranbrook Bucks alongside Nathan Lieuwen, President and Majority Owner. (Supplied by Cranbrook Bucks)

Whether you look at the massive renovations at Western Financial Place undertaken by the Cranbrook Bucks and City of Cranbrook for a new video scoreboard, new glass, boards, renovated dressing room, upgraded suites, paint and more, that doesn’t factor in the initial investment the Bucks made to secure the BCHL franchise without significant revenue from ticket sales and fans in the stands. That’s just the economic impact, let alone the impact on the players who have waited around for months on word if they would be able to play games, many with their scholarship hopes hanging in the balance.

Numerous import players from the Cranbrook Bucks, including captain Briggs Gammill, have since left to play in the United States where there was an opportunity to play games. Piling on the emotional stress of getting through COVID-19 and the day-to-day grind of the players, the Bucks also had to fill those gaps in the roster.

“It’s been a challenge,” Donald said truthfully. “I think it’s been felt not just across our team but our league, and our country in a lot of ways, with the CJHL and guys pursuing other opportunities down in the US where they’ve been able to get the green light to play games. As much as we stress development and what we can do in each and every guy’s day-to-day, developing them as young men and athletes, there’s still that itch to compete and that drive to play and we certainly understand where these guys are coming from with other opportunities and the things that they can pursue.”

“We’ve kind of had to tinker along the way too and amid the whole process understanding there may not be games this year, we weren’t sure as we went through Christmas, January, February, but we did have something. We had the opportunity to develop, help players get on the ice and grow and become a part of our organization.”

The training room inside the Cranbrook Bucks team dressing room. (Bradley Jones, MyEastKootenayNow.com staff)

Donald said they have made a handful of additions to ensure the roster is solidified ahead of the 2021 season as they now navigate the mandatory quarantine period.

“We did make a couple of moves to kind of shore up some of the holes that would have been left vacant by guys departing and pursuing other things and other leagues and I’m certainly excited to have new guys in the fold. It also gives guys that were right within our program from day one, that we’ve had coming out of camp, an opportunity to take a bigger role too.”

It’s all a balancing act for Donald and the coaching staff as they find talented players to fill out the roster, while also providing bigger roles to the guys that did stick it out the entire season up to this point. That includes affiliating local players from the KIJHL’s Kimberley Dynamiters or Fernie Ghostriders, some even getting permanent roster spots for the season.

“Ultimately, we want to find the best players that we think can help us, but at the same time, giving those (local) guys the opportunity when it fits. Certainly, this has been a funky year, but like I said before, it’s giving a lot of guys different roles, some guys that were maybe hoping to make the jump in a future season the chance to showcase themselves here with our 20 games.”

While the Cranbrook Bucks had five import players on their roster during the exhibition portion of their season in October and November, the majority of the team is now from British Columbia (10), Alberta (7), and Manitoba (3) with individual players from Saskatchewan, Ontario, and California.

MORE: Cranbrook Bucks 2020/21 BCHL Roster (Cranbrook Bucks)

The most exciting aspect of the BCHL season for Donald and the Bucks is the fact that the team can finally move past individual skill-based development and shine the spotlight on their players for the NCAA, CIS, and other future playing opportunities.

Cranbrook Bucks Majority Owner and President Nathan Lieuwen with wife Breanne and family at Western Financial Place October 8, 2019, to announce the Bucks franchise joining the BCHL. (Supplied by Breanne Lieuwen)

“As much as we can develop and work on their individual skills, now they have to get into the rhythm of a game and find out if they can perform on back-to-back nights or when they’re tired or after an icing call or shorthanded, things like that where you don’t really get that simulation in practice, particular again to the restrictions that we’ve had.”

Having an opponent, battling for the puck, all of those things can only be displayed in a game environment, providing scouts a chance to watch BCHL TV and potentially make a decision on a player for their NCAA program or elsewhere. Donald said  85% of the scouting will be done abroad by coaches watching games on the online platform, but that he is still committed to making phone calls and promoting the players as much as possible.

While there have been challenges – there is no denying that, Donald says the team just has to jump the final hurdle of their mandatory 14-day quarantine so they can gather once again in Penticton and drop the puck on their debut season as a franchise.

“It’s certainly been a long grind here doing the 14 days. We’ve had guys that have gone through this protocol in the past, I’ve done it in the past too and there’s no fun way about it but you kind of have to get through it and I think our guys understand what’s at stake here.”

“They are high-performance athletes, these guys understand that there is a lot riding on them playing by the rules and being safe and managing risks and all of these things. We talk about opportunities with schools and being evaluated and scouted, well it’s tough to do that if you’re in a COVID protocol or something like that where you’re not eligible to play for a couple of weeks.”

Only playing a five-week season, Donald says it’s imperative that the players follow all of the rules and regulations to not jeopardize their chances at a potential scholarship or sitting in the stands after all of the hard work they’ve done already just to make it to early April.

“These young men are looking at college careers and hockey careers at the professional level in their hopes and dreams and they’re going to play by the rules and what the established protocols are within the league and games and travel and all of these different things because they certainly understand what’s at stake for them in their career.”

The Cranbrook Bucks make their BCHL debut in Penticton on Saturday, April 3rd against the Vees. Playing 10 games against Penticton, and 10 games against the Trail Smoke Eaters, the Bucks season will close on Sunday, May 9th.

The Cranbrook Bucks sign and logo on the exterior of Cranbrook’s Western Financial Place. (Bradley Jones, MyEastKootenayNow.com staff)
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