The “eyes that matter” in the junior hockey world are out in full force in Chilliwack and Penticton this week as the B.C. Hockey League presents a new look to its long-running Showcase Festival.
What originated as an event designed to give scouts from the NCAA and NHL an opportunity to see the talent level throughout the 17-team league in one fell swoop in Chilliwack, is now a two-city event. Penticton will also host games this year, as well as stage a “Hockey House”, with interactive activities for fans. The league is also hosting a Hockey Panel which featuring former NHL players and current and past BCHL dads Mike Richter, Doug Weight and Dixon Ward. In addition, TSN 1040 hosts Matt Sekeres and Blake Price will broadcast their afternoon drive show live from the Hockey House in Penticton from 3-7 p.m. on Friday. The Showcase kicked off on Wednesday in the Fraser Valley, and continues today with four more games. The scene then shifts to the Okanagan for games Friday and Saturday.
“Our Showcase has grown in stature since its inception in 2012 thanks to the great work done in Chilliwack, and we feel the time is right to add another few layers to the proceedings,” said BCHL Commissioner Chris Hebb. “From now on, the Showcase is going to be a marquee event to signify the beginning of the hockey season in our province.”
“What we want to do with this event is make it more than just hockey,” said BCHL Executive Director Steven Cocker. “We feel it’s incredibly important to engage our fans and showcase our communities.”
And those communities have seen some incredible hockey players over the past several years. The BCHL is acknowledged as the top Junior A circuit in Canada, both in terms of competitive depth, and as the leading provider of NCAA Division I commitments. As the league’s website states: “Sending more players on to college hockey every season than any other hockey league in Canada, the BCHL has established itself as a national leader in the development of young student athletes. Considering today’s NHL features more NCAA alumni than ever before, Junior A hockey on the whole is fast rivaling Major Junior hockey in Canada as a breeding ground for the sport’s most elite and successful players.”
The Showcase plan is certainly working. As more and more scouts pencilled in BCHL dates on their calendars, the number of BCHLers being drafted by NHL teams has steadily grown. A Chilliwack Chiefs team official on Wednesday said that roughly 125 scouts were in the building on Day One. As part of the scouts’ information package the league proudly let it be known that “We expect this year’s Showcase Festival to continue to highlight the young and bright talent coming through the British Columbia Hockey League. Last season we had 273 BCHL alumni playing Division 1 College Hockey with at least one alum on 54 of the 60 NCAA Division 1 Programs. On top of that, we had 40 BCHL alumni that suited up in the NHL with several more at the AHL level. With 15 NHL draft picks over the past two seasons, we expect this year’s Showcase Festival to be a launching pad for our players.”
The 2019-20 NHL season coincidentally also kicked off on Wednesday and there were 32 BCHL alums on opening-night rosters across the league. The Nashville Predators have the most BCHL talent on their roster with six players, and 22 of the 31 NHL teams have at least one former BCHLer on their roster. The Penticton Vees lead the way with six alums in the NHL. The Coquitlam Express have five and the Salmon Arm Silverbacks have four.
There are currently 100 former Eagles still actively playing post-junior hockey around the world. To date, 146 former Eagles have gone on to play NCAA hockey, and several have reached the NHL. Among the four most prominent, three are active: Danton Heinen of the Boston Bruins, Devon Toews of the New York Islanders, and Brandon Tanev of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Scott Gomez, the NHL’s Calder Cup Trophy winner as the rookie-of-the-year in 1999-00 and two-time Stanley Cup champion with the New Jersey Devils, and who enjoyed an 18-year professional career, is the most successful former Eagle.
At present, the Eagles have six committed NCAA players on their roster: captain Cody Schiavon (Yale University, 2020-21), Owen Nolan (Army, U.S. Military Academy, 2020-21), Cade Alami (Providence College, 2020-21), Brett Bliss (Brown University 2021-22), Wyatt Schlaht (Brown University, 2020-21) and Cristophe Tellier (Quinnipiac University 2020-21)
Surrey Eagles General Manager Blaine Neufeld, head coach Cam Keith and assistant coach Brad Tobin gave their thoughts from the league’s, a coach’s and a scout’s perspective. Tobin, for the record, scouted both Heinen and Toews as minor hockey players, which of course is where every BCHL’er first has those eyes that matter upon him.
Blaine Neufeld: “I think it’s one of the premier events in all of junior hockey. It’s made easy for the scouts to come to one area and see all the players and this year there’s a lot of good talent. The convenience for the scouts is huge. This year we’re splitting between Chilliwack and Penticton and I think the idea of that was maybe not to overdo it on the Chilliwack organization and their fan base because I think it’s a lot to ask year in and year out to have energy around an event. I think the league might look to move it around in future years so they’re trying it out in Penticton for a little while. It also helps save on costs for some of the interior teams. Penticton has a facility in a great location, and always has great crowds. There’s so much talent in our league now, and the scouts know it. It’s exciting when you go down to the dressing room after the game and see 13 scouts lined up outside the door who want to talk to a kid. I know it means a lot for the kids to get that opportunity. And it’s always disappointing if a guy is hurt or suspended during that time because it is such a such a showcase for them to be in front of those eyes who are making the selections for commitments in years future.”
Cam Keith: “It’s really important for us this year because most of our players are still [NCAA] uncommitted. So, you try to get the focus away from the individual. Instead, it’s to display your skills, and the best way to do it is as a team, and play a team concept. You display your individual skills better when you use each other. That will be the message going in. Oh, the players absolutely know: It’s time! It’s always a scramble. It’s not always the prettiest hockey. The BCHL Showcase is always a selling point when it comes to recruiting. We always use it. There’s 100 or so Division I scouts at our Showcase, it’s the biggest showcase in Canada as far as NHL/NCAA scouts are concerned. Other leagues do it but we get the most attention. Multiple NHL scouts will be watching. There are some high-end 17-year-olds kids [in the BCHL] this season. Trent Johnson from Trail will be attracting a lot of attention. It’s always a fun event.”
Brad Tobin: “They’re all buddies, they all travel together throughout the season. They see everybody at the same rinks, but when it comes to discussing players, that’s a no-no. They keep their own lists within their scouting department, for sure. This is the first time most NHL scouts get their first looks at the guys for the upcoming draft, but also for the 16-year-olds who are two years down the road. You can look at Dennis Cholowski a couple years ago from Chilliwack. He kind of came out of nowhere and got drafted [Detroit Red Wings] in the first round. It started with the Showcase and guys kept coming back to Chilliwack throughout the year. More and more scouts keep showing up at the Showcase. We do something similar when spring camps happen. You’re watching a lot of hockey in a small amount of time so you might miss something here or there. That’s why a lot of teams bring two guys, just to have a helping hand. If the first guy misses something then the second guy is there as well.”