A former NHL player and current hockey dad has started a petition asking the British Columbia government to allow the province’s top junior hockey leagues to resume playing games this season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garry Valk, who spent 13 years in the NHL, including stints in Vancouver and Toronto, now calls North Vancouver home and has an 18-year-old son, Garrett Valk, playing hockey with the BCHL’s Trail Smoke Eaters. Yesterday, Valk started an online petition asking for the province to allow the Major Junior WHL and the Junior A BCHL to resume game play. Both leagues have kept the hockey season going with physically distanced practices only since COVID-19 restrictions shut down all game action near the end of 2020.
It’s time to get these elite athletes back in action, Valk told the North Shore News Friday.
“They’ve sacrificed everything to play their sport,” he said. “And now they’ve been sitting in their cohorts, their bubbles, just waiting, doing the right things. You know: no girlfriends, no parties, can’t play poker, no dances. My son has never gone to a dance. They’re just waiting, waiting, doing the right thing, waiting, doing the right thing. And they just keep getting ignored.”
Valk made it clear that he was referring specifically to the upper levels of junior hockey, those players in the 17-20 age bracket who are at a critical stage in their development, working on their games while vying for coveted draft spots and university scholarships. He has three children, including a 22-year-old daughter who is a NCAA tennis player and an 11-year-old son who also plays hockey, but it is those athletes in the critical late-teen years that have the most at stake right now, says Valk.
“My 11-year-old can miss hockey games right now,” he said. “He may lose interest, but he can play another sport. He hasn’t dedicated his whole life to hockey yet.”
That’s not the case for the junior players, though.
“Those junior hockey players have sacrificed everything,” he said. “My son would take seven days off per year, since he was seven years old. You go on holidays, he’s training. You go anywhere, he’s training. They train for these two years – this is why they do it.”
Valk also reiterated that he was fully in favour of any efforts to protect vulnerable populations from COVID-19, but added that junior hockey can be played without putting other populations at risk.
“I want to protect the elderly. I want people to know that I’m not uncaring,” he said. “I mean, my mother-in-law has Stage 4 cancer. My father-in-law is a diabetic that has Parkinson’s. Both of them, every day, they call Garrett, and they just can’t believe he’s not playing. … My father-in-law nailed it. He said, ‘We want these kids playing, Garry. They don’t have to visit us until we get vaccinated. We’ll stay in our rooms and watch your kid play hockey, because that’s his dream.’”
Valk noted that junior leagues across the continent have restarted or have return-to-play plans in place, with B.C. standing out as an exception. Next door in Alberta the five WHL teams in that province are beginning an abbreviated season tonight, while the AJHL has been approved for a season running from March until May.
Here in B.C., however, junior hockey leagues, like all other youth sports, have been restricted to physically distanced practices since late November, with no firm timetable yet for a return to play.
“They shut us down because a beer league team went to Calgary and all got COVID because they were drinking in the parking lot,” said Valk, noting an infamous incident that occurred late last year involving a B.C. adult-league team. “That’s not Junior A hockey.”
Players in B.C. could be falling behind others elsewhere, said Valk.
“These guys sit at home and they're on social media, they see their scholarships going to players who necessarily aren't as good. They see NHL teams talking about players potentially to draft that aren't as good.”
As of Friday afternoon the petition had collected more than 1,800 signatures in less than 24 hours. Valk said he felt obliged to speak up for these young players.
“I’m blessed to have a pretty deep social media presence, and I felt it was my job to give them a voice,” he said. “I don’t want to see any kids left out.”