It is very unlikely the Western Hockey League begins play in early October.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rear its ugly head across North America, tossing curve balls at just about any and all form of group gathering. While the days of enjoying live sporting events are firmly in our collective rear view mirror, it only seems natural to yearn for the experience to return as a normal part of our recreational lifestyle.
Alas, that bit of fun doesn’t appear to be within our grasp.
But who better to speak with us about the current state of affairs than the Chairman of the WHL Board of Governors? Re-elected to the post on June 17 for another term, Bruce Hamilton is most certainly in the loop these days.
The re-election, which seems like more of an appointment, transpired after nobody brought forward any other nominations.
For years, there have been voices in WHL cities who opine that as Chairman, Hamilton somehow wields an inordinate amount of power. If this were the case, one wonders why there wouldn’t be a host of strong WHL personalities clamouring for an opportunity in that very role?
Hamilton has been the active Chairman of the WHL Board of Governors since 2008. He previously served in the same capacity from 1998 to 2004. Hamilton is the longest-serving Chairman in WHL history.
In June, Bobby Brett of the Spokane Chiefs (U.S. Division) and Brent Sutter of the Red Deer Rebels (Central Division) were re-elected to the Executive Committee of the WHL Board of Governors. Brett and Sutter join Ron Toigo of the Vancouver Giants (B.C. Division) and Gord Broda of the Prince Albert Raiders (East Division) on the WHL Executive Committee.
WHL Commissioner Ron Robison, enters his 21st season and is an ex-officio member of the Executive Committee.
Hamilton landing in the role once again may have been the logical decision anyway, as junior hockey continues to face a barrage of challenges across the country.
These days, Hamilton is keeping his ear to the ground, although it is anything but business as usual. In addition to his dealings with junior hockey nationwide, the operation of his Kelowna Rockets also requires his attention.
DUBNetwork spoke with Hamilton by telephone on Friday, July 31.
Glen Erickson, DUBNetwork: On June 17, you were re-elected as chairman of the board. What can you tell us about the process? Was there anybody else in the running?
Bruce Hamilton: “What they do is open it up for nominations. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had to run against anybody in 10 terms.”
GE: I imagine more than a few fan bases around the WHL would be interested to hear this. You’re saying every organization has an opportunity to nominate someone for that role. Any thoughts on why nobody would nominate anyone?
BH: “I don’t know, but I think that probably with the times we’re in right now, the majority of my peers feel I’ve been involved in this for such a long period of time and dealing with the Commissioner (Ron Robison), that in order to try and help shepherd us through where we’re going here, it’s probably a little easier with somebody who’s got a number of years experience.
“In my mind it’s a tremendous honour to be representing my peers. They put me in this position 10 times.
“But you know what? Change is good, too. And probably in the near future, there’s probably going to need to be that.”
GE: Sure, two schools of thought, I suppose. On one hand, maybe it’s time for a new voice or a new presence. But of course, with the uniqueness of these current-day challenges, it would seem continuity is pretty important right now?
BH: “Well, the position does tie up a lot of time.
“Basically, the first couple hours of every morning that I’m in the office are attached to that role. And then you start to work on your own business after that.
“I’m in constant contact with the Commissioner. There’s a lot of things that go on in the league that I’m certainly aware of; things that are kept between the two of us just simply because you have to do it that way.
“I’m a sounding board for him and for the president of the CHL. And, Brent Sutter now sits on the CHL board – we added another person from each league.
GE: These have got to be tough times to be a Commissioner in major junior hockey?
BH: “There are a lot of wheels in motion all the time. It’s not just lining up referees.
“He’s full on seven days a week, 24 hours a day, dealing with the different issues. Right now, you know, I feel sorry for him because he’s trying to have a family holiday and he’s got no chance to do that because with the issues at hand, he’s on call all the time.”
GE: You told me a few years ago one of the things that is real important, given your role as Chairman, you almost have to be more transparent, just to make sure there is no perception of impropriety and that kind of thing. Like it or not, you’re really under the microscope?
BH: “I will never want to put myself in a conflicting situation. But I am involved. I’m a sounding board for a lot of guys that come to me. They’re maybe frustrated, maybe trying to get the Commissioner’s attention and then I can usually work it over to one of the committees to help the person out.
“But when it comes to any kind of discipline or anything that has to do with the operation of a team’s on ice product, I totally step right away from it.”
GE: What kind of things are you hearing from your colleagues these days?
BH: “You know, times like now we’re dealing with a lot of people who are, I would say they’re nervous. They’re probably are some people that are scared, too. We don’t know when we’re going to come out of this.
“And these aren’t small businesses anymore – they’re big businesses. They all have a significant impact in the cities they’re in. Think of the amount of people – not just the team’s employees, but those in every facility.
“As long as the lights are out, there’s a lot of people not getting their part-time jobs. So, there are lots of things going on and people are worried about where things are going to go.
“It’s a real challenge. We’ve got key people in each market that are being looked upon by all of those people, wondering when it’s time to get going.”
GE: When you think nationally, are you aware of some of these teams, these businesses, if they are eligible for some of the Federal grants and programs if they need to go that route?
BH: “A lot of the teams are on the staffing one. We are. We’d be foolish not to be.
“We’ve never had a big staff here. And we still don’t. We’re down to a head trainer, two coaches and four people working in the office. And we’re, we’re probably carrying one or two more than a number of people are.”
GE: It’s just a complete holding pattern, eh?
BH: “We don’t have a clear window as to where we’re going yet. We certainly have lots of ideas, but this is something that’s totally out of our hands until the medical community decides when we can go back to some semblance of normalcy.
”We’re just spinning our wheels waiting and there’s really nothing you can do. There’s your recruiting at a standstill, your planning for the year is at a stand still because you don’t know when you’re going to start. And nobody wants to start investing in anything until you know you’re gonna start taking something in. We’re gonna make prudent fiscal decisions right now.”
GE: What’s the difference between CHL teams accessing Federal programs and the CHL lobbying the Federal government for funding support?
BH: “There’s the Federal programs out there, everybody has access to them. But the lobbying the Federal government is totally in the hands of our president and CEO (Dan MacKenzie).
“I think that we’ve taken a path where we’ve got to find out where we’re going to be, instead of going there to make any big asks. I think we’re taking a path that’s probably more like, ‘hey, this is our plan and how can you help us make this plan happen’.
“First and foremost, we have to be responsible for the health of our players and our fans and all the people who work in the buildings, our billets.”
GE: With October 2 designated as the start date, some parents have confided in me they’ve been told to have their sons start school in their own hometowns. These are some kids who play in the United States.
BH: “Yes, we’ll be making an announcement. We’re going to have a Governor’s meeting Wednesday (August 5).
“It’s all based on the communications with the health boards in the provinces and the States of Washington and Oregon. It’s pretty well unanimous where that stuff’s all fallen into right now.
“So, rather than have a date that we’re pretty sure wasn’t going to work, it’ll now be something that we hope can be a little more realistic.
GE: We know some of the players had experience with virtual schooling last spring after the league was unable to complete play.
BH: “I’m imagining that’s going to be the main plan and we’ve been on that for a few months. Our education coordinators have been working with the schools where the kids come from.
“There are costs that none of us can handle when you’re not taking in anything. And, I think parents, and as a parent, I would prefer to have my kids at home for as long as possible until we know when we’re going to start right, so they’ll go into an environment that is very controlled.”
GE: Yeah, fair comment. It’s interesting to sort of put your parent’s hat on, isn’t it?
BH: “Well, that’s just Bruce Hamilton’s view. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the Western Hockey League or other team’s view.”
GE: What about with everything going on in Portland with the Winterhawks? What kind of challenges do you have in that market? There has been plenty of success there.
BH: “The sad thing there is that it got into receivership and that’s got nothing to do with the hockey operation. That all has got to do with the parent company.
“The hockey operation has been very successful, and their business component has turned the corner and done real well. So, it’s really unfortunate that it got into the receiver’s hands because now you have a bunch of people trying to buy things that they think are part of a fire sale.
“At the end of the day, the Western Hockey League – by our constitution – we still pick who our partners are. There’s a reason for that because we don’t want people that are fly-by-night to come in. So, the receiver can hunt and try and sell to somebody, but it still has to come to the board.
“So, we’re very confident that in time we’ll have the right group in there and make sure that it’s a solid group prepared to be there for the long run, to make sure it’s in good hands first and foremost.”
GE: Right. And then in Prince George, some things that relate to facility closures have been announced.
BH: “Well, our situation in Kelowna is no different. We have no idea when they could be putting ice in here.
“If we didn’t have this COVID situation, we’d have ice going in right now because on August 20, training camp would be starting.
“But, I can’t blame them, because the cost of operating an ice plant in one of these facilities when it’s 30 degrees outside? And there’s nothing going on? There’s not a lot of sense in doing anything like that, so the other facilities haven’t opened up around here.
“When we get to an idea, a strong idea when we’re going to get going, then they’re going to probably make decisions as to how fast they’re going to get up and running, too.”
GE: You must have a plan for when it’s ‘go time’, when you get the word things are okay?
BH: “I know this, when we name a date and know exactly when we’re going to be allowed to start – two weeks prior to that, our players will all be in the city and training camp will take place. It’ll certainly be a different training camp than in the past.”
GE: I think it’ll be interesting to see players get on the ice at some point in their hometowns, then get in there for a couple weeks to give you guys time to work with the athletes and determine kind of where they’re at physically.
BH: “Our coaches and trainer are in touch with these guys on a weekly basis. And I think the biggest challenge right now for the coaches, is just reinforcing with these guys there’s gonna be a bit of a wait.”
GE: Are you watching the National Hockey League closely?
BH: “Yes, I think when the NHL thing ends, you’re going to see the same thing happen with them again, too. I don’t think they’re going to start until December at the earliest. It’s going to be very similar to us when they start – you’ve got to have some people in the building to make it work.
“If we started up with 50% capacity, well, you’re just losing 50%. It’s going to cost us to sit here until Christmas. It’s going to cost a lot of money for everybody and that will be the challenge. Going forward, you’ve got to survive because you’re going to be playing catch up all the time.”
GE: How important do you feel it is for baseball, basketball, and certainly the NHL to be successful?
BH: “The NHL and basketball are critical to us in my mind because it’s whether they can control the virus.
“If those guys can all come out of that, then we come in and we’re closer to a vaccine? There’ll have to be ways to control how many people are in the facility with safe distancing, and maybe masks? All these need to be in place in order to make it even start right.”
GE: Is there regular contact with the NHL, just in terms of discussing the strategies and the ideas?
BH: “Yes. Our CEO came from the NBA, so he’s very tied to Mr. Bettman and that group. His boss was David Stern, so he was really integrated into that.
“And with the NHL? I mean, we’re the number one developer of players, so they’re going to need us, too. So, they’re sharing things all the time and we talk about best practices.”
GE: That sounds encouraging. Concerning the Kelowna Rockets, it was pretty important to get your top two bantam draft picks signed. They’re committed to the organization now?
BH: “Yep. And, you know, good old Saskatoon kid there, Caden Price. And Andrew Cristall from Vancouver.
“We’re really hoping we can get young (Marcus) Pacheco signed out of Edmonton.
“We feel our first five picks are all real good players for sure and I know Lorne Frey felt that this was as good a draft as we’ve had in many years.”
GE: Heady stuff if a guy with Lorne’s credibility is that excited. But no rookie camp this year – that was almost a staple in Kelowna, those late August gatherings. You’d have 100 players attend.
BH: “Well, it’s just to see if we could find somebody that maybe was missed. Or, it could just be someone who matures a little later. But that doesn’t happen as much anymore – guys getting missed – because the scouting is so good.”