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Sports >  Spokane Chiefs

Junior hockey teams around the region navigate vaccine mandates, international travel

Aug. 25, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 26, 2021 at 11:35 a.m.

Reed Jacobson of the Spokane Chiefs skates against Tri-City in a game last season.  (Courtesy of Spokane Chiefs/Larry Blunt)
Reed Jacobson of the Spokane Chiefs skates against Tri-City in a game last season. (Courtesy of Spokane Chiefs/Larry Blunt)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

With preseason camp set to begin Sept. 1, Spokane Chiefs players have been making their way into town.

As of Tuesday, all those players are vaccinated, Chiefs general manager Scott Carter said, bringing the organization’s rate up to 100% for staff and players.

That gets the team in line with the Western Hockey League’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, which it announced last week, and Carter said he expects 50 to 55 players to attend next week’s camp.

But the other junior league team in town, the Spokane Braves of the Kootenay International Hockey League at the Junior B level, won’t be ramping up activities anytime soon. Last week, they withdrew from the KIJHL for this season after doing the same last season amid the pandemic.

It is the latest evidence of the pandemic’s ongoing impact on the region’s hockey leagues.

“It sucks,” Braves owner Bob Tobiason said. “More than anything, it’s just gonna be such a hassle at the border. … I just see a big problem brewing up there.”

Even in normal times, Tobiason said, crossing the border can be tricky. He said there might be other “little issues you can’t really see” or anticipate.

The Braves’ decision also came down to vaccinations, which were mandated by the KIJHL for all players, bench staff and on-ice officials on Aug. 16, the same day the WHL announced its own similar requirement.

“Some of the kids, they were willing to get vaccinated,” Tobiason, “but there were quite a few who weren’t gonna do it.”

The WHL’s vaccine mandate is broader and applies to all hockey operations staff, all other team personnel and “any other individuals who interact directly and on a regular basis with players.”

Braves players, who range in age from 14 to 20 years old and in a typical season are mostly from the Spokane area, will participate in either their local youth leagues or elsewhere, Tobiason said. Next year will be the Braves’ 50th in the KIJHL.

“We’re all on board and ready to go for next year,” Tobiason said.

Campbell Arnold and Bear Hughes, two current Chiefs players, spent time with the Braves in previous years as affiliated players, a relationship Carter has cultivated since he joined the Chiefs in 2016.

“I’m sorry to hear that they’re not playing,” Carter said of the Braves this year. “I had hoped we’d continue on a working relationship and get a player or two that possibly could play there like we had in the past and be affiliated with us.”

For Chiefs players, most of whom are Canadian, crossing into the United States has been easier: If they are signed by the team, then their immigration status grants them passage.

Once the season begins and the Chiefs need to cross into British Columbia, regulations as they currently stand will require that Chiefs players and personnel produce a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of reaching the border and also that they prove their vaccination status.

So far the WHL has not announced how it would proceed if a team reports a breakthrough COVID case.

The 18-team British Columbia Hockey League, a Junior A league whose only U.S.-based team plays in Wenatchee, has not announced a vaccine requirement for its teams specifically. However, because proof of vaccination is required to enter Canada from the U.S., a player could not cross without it.

“Did we lose a player or two? Yeah, we did, a few kids who didn’t wanna get a shot,” said Bliss Littler, the Wenatchee Wild’s general manager. “But there’s a lot of kids who wanna play in the BCHL.”

The Chiefs are scheduled to play all their preseason games in Washington, including one Sept. 22 at Spokane Arena. Their first of five scheduled trips into Canada comes Oct. 15 for a game at the Kelowna Rockets.

The WHL’s two conferences will not play any crossover games during the regular season, so the only province the Chiefs are scheduled to play in is British Columbia. Their 68-game schedule includes 12 games against each of the other four U.S. Division teams and four against each of the five B.C. Division teams.

On Wednesday, the WHL announced all spectators at its five B.C. arenas will be required to show proof of vaccination prior to entry. The decision complies with the Government of British Columbia’s COVID-19 proof of vaccination program announced on Monday, which requires such proof to attend various recreational events in the province.

No such requirement has been announced by the Chiefs.

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