Pilot project aims to keep hockey players in regional zones

A regional spin on bantam tier 1 hockey this season, with a pilot project in the Thompson-Okanagan

By Adam Williams

Kamloops This Week

It’s the latest attempt to keep minor hockey players at home, rather than suiting up for academies and winter clubs.

BC Hockey and the Okanagan Mainline Amateur Hockey Association (OMAHA) have teamed up to put a regional spin on bantam tier 1 hockey this season, with a pilot project in the Thompson-Okanagan.

“My understanding is that the hope is to maybe take it provincially, but that will sort of depend on how things go here,” said Kyle Allan, head coach of the Kamloops Junior Blazers.

For the purposes of league play in OMAHA this season, the Junior Blazers will be known as the Thompson Zone.

“The main goal is to try to get kids to stay at home and be playing tier 1 hockey, sort of reverse the trend of kids going away to academies and things like that,” Allan said.

The new initiative is more than just a name change.

Prior to this season, players could move to Kamloops to play for the Junior Blazers if they didn’t have a rep team in their area.

Now, kids from the Thompson Zone — which includes Lillooet, Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Kamloops, Clearwater, Merritt, Logan Lake and Chase — can play for Kamloops without moving to the city.

Joining the Thompson Zone in OMAHA are the Central Zone and the North Zone.

The Central Zone includes Kelowna and Winfield, while the North Zone encompasses Vernon, Salmon Arm, Enderby, Sicamous and Revelstoke. The hope is to add a fourth team to the south, which would include West Kelowna, Oliver, Penticton and Osoyoos.

The idea is that providing more local opportunities for players might help to counteract players leaving home for competition in leagues like the Canadian Sport School Hockey League, in which academy programs like those of the Pursuit of Excellence, the Okanagan Hockey Academy and the Notre Dame Hounds play.

Allan said it’s hard to say if the new pilot program is working as it was implemented shortly before the start of the new season.

Asked if he feels like it’s the right idea, he said the proof will be in the pudding.

“I would like to hope so. It’s hard to say — everybody kind of has to be on board and be on the same page,” Allan said.

“There’s lots of good talent here. It would be similar to the major midget league, that same kind of thing where we could create a little bit of a better competitive talent pool for teams to choose from at the tier 1 level and again hopefully that makes it a bit more competitive and brings more kids back to play.

“I think it can work, but again, it’s all a matter of people buying in.”

Strong start

Early signs are showing the Junior Blazers might again be the team to beat in OMAHA.

The club is undefeated in league action and recently finished ninth in the Chilliwack Bantam International Challenge Cup.

The Junior Blazers are being led by a pair of 14-year-olds in Brendan Kirschner and Jarrod Semchuk, both of whom Allan said might get a look when the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft rolls around in May.