BCHL holding happy anniversary

Nanaimo Clippers offer $5 tickets to Friday's home game against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.

Alberni Valley Bulldogs player Evan Tironese

Alberni Valley Bulldogs player Evan Tironese

This week, the B.C. Hockey League celebrates 50 years of history, and fans get to see how far the game has come.

The Nanaimo Clippers and the Alberni Valley Bulldogs are one of eight rivalry matchups taking place this Friday (Nov. 25) and Saturday as the league tried its best to put together a fan-appreciation-type schedule.

“The intention was to try to provide the best opportunity to create interest among the fans, to see a rival game,” said John Grisdale, BCHL commissioner. “I think we’re going to see peaked attendance, which was our goal.”

The 50th anniversary weekend is meant to celebrate the past and present at once. In recent weeks the league has polled fans, and it has now gathered enough response that it will release a list of the top 50 BCHL players of all time this weekend.

“Over each decade there’s a significant number of prominent names on each list and potentially some that weren’t on the list,” Grisdale said. “It really gives you an indication of the level of talent that has played some time in the B.C. Hockey League.”

Longtime fans have watched from the stands the evolution of the BCHL to its current status as arguably the world’s best junior A hockey league.

“It’s provided good hockey in many cities across the province for the past 50 years,” said Mike Vandekamp, Clippers coach. “Here in Nanaimo we’re on the cusp of our 40th anniversary next year so we’ve certainly been one of the long-standing flagship franchises in this league.”

Grisdale said the calibre of play in the BCHL gets better every year. He said he was proud of how BCHL talent contributed at the recent World Junior A Challenge, helping Canada West win gold.

“The league really shone…” the commissioner said. “We’re recognized as the premier development league for not only NCAA [but also] Canadian universities. The pro scouts flock to our arenas. We’re really in a good spot.”

The commish said the games this weekend are meaningful ones. With the league’s new playoff format limiting the number of post-season qualifiers, the commish, teams and fans are all paying closer attention to the standings than they usually would at this time of year.

“You can certainly see it in the Coastal Conference, how the teams all line up, from top to bottom, there’s not a lot of wiggle room…” Grisdale said. “Every game means a lot.”

That’s certainly true of this weekend’s games between the Clippers and Bulldogs.

The Island rivals played a home-and-home series earlier this month that included some of the most exciting hockey of the season so far. Vandekamp said fans can anticipate more of the same this Friday (Nov. 25) and Saturday.

“I would expect that with what’s on the line in the standings, that you’ll see good hockey this weekend from both teams,” he said.

Trevor Fitzgerald, Clippers captain, said the games are likely to be physical and fast-paced.

“They’ve got a pretty skilled team up front. They’re not as big as us so we’ve got to play physical, play the body on them and shut them down early, give them nothing,” he said.

Alberni tends to bring along a larger contingent of fans than any other team, but Nanaimo fans are likely to make their voices heard Friday at Frank Crane Arena.

“It’s great to have an atmosphere in there,” said Fitzgerald. “When you make a big hit, score a big goal and you hear the crowd go wild out there it really helps get you fired up.”

BCHL players have been making those big hits and scoring those big goals for 50 years now. This Friday, at the big anniversary bash, it’s time to celebrate that – and look forward to the next 50.

“Hopefully we can show the rest of the league what type of fan support we have here,” Vandekamp said.

GAME ON … The Clippers and Bulldogs face off Friday at 7 p.m. at Frank Crane Arena. Tickets cost $5 for all seats, all ages, and will be available at the door or in advance by calling 250-751-0593 … The Clips and Bulldogs play again Saturday at 7 p.m. at Port Alberni’s Weyerhaeuser Arena.