No ‘free ride’ to playoffs anymore

The B.C. Hockey League has made a host of changes to schedules and rosters next year.

Some changes, the Nanaimo Clippers like. Others they can live with. Some they hate.

The most noteworthy change is the playoff structure. Instead of seven teams making the playoffs in each conference, only four will qualify. It eliminates one round from the playoffs, meaning the season can start in late September instead of early September.

The Clippers, who finished fifth in the Coastal Conference last year, would have missed the playoffs under the new format. Still, coach Mike Vandekamp said he’s been a proponent of a more exclusive playoff tournament.

“It’s forcing the players to have to really compete harder between September and March. There’s no free ride,” he said.

The most common argument against a smaller playoff is the fact that it takes away important development time from so many players.

“Any time you take an opportunity away from a group of kids to showcase themselves in the playoffs, I don’t know how that can be a good thing,” said Jim Ingram, new co-coach of the Cowichan Valley Capitals.

The format change will probably mean a busier trade deadline, Vandekamp predicted.

“[With] seven out of eight teams making the playoffs, well, everybody’s kind of living the dream that they’re going to win the championship and you don’t see a lot of player movement.”

The Clippers coach also likes the season getting pushed back to Sept. 23, saying that the first month of the season “has never been a great draw” anyway with fans spending evenings outdoors.

Another major format change announced this month is a return to a half-interlock schedule, which means not every team will visit Frank Crane Arena this season.

Vandekamp doesn’t like it because he said players should get to experience every building, fans should get more variety and most of all, it’s simply not fair.

“We’ve created more of an emphasis on the regular season now and to imagine that some teams have to play games in other teams’ rinks and other teams don’t have to creates a complete imbalance in the standings,” he said.

He’s also irked by new roster rules – it’s now mandatory to have one 16-year-old and one 17-year-old, and teams can carry only 21 players instead of 23.

Vandekamp would have preferred a gradual change, to 22 players.

“There’s always injuries, illness … suspension,” he said. “We’re in danger of going on the road for three games and having to use 16 or 17 guys for the third game of a trip.”

Vandekamp said coaches he’s spoken to seem to be unanimously against the smaller roster. Ingram has the same concerns about injury troubles, based on his experiences coaching the Trail Smoke Eaters in recent years.

“There were a lot of times I’d have two, three or four [affiliate players] in the lineup. Sometimes I’d be short players with APs in the lineup,” he said.

Vandekamp said a smaller roster also means a smaller-scale practice.

“It hurts our practice environment big-time; it’s nice to have some extra bodies on the practice ice all the time,” he said. “And a big part of our development in our league is the time we spend on the practice sheet.”

The changes were put forward by a steering committee and voted on by the board of governors.

“We do some dramatic and drastic things sometimes,” Vandekamp said. “Good on us for trying them. We can always go back and change if we have to.”

-with files from Don Bodger