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Grisdale set for swan song as BCHL commissioner at Chilliwack RBC Cup

Steve Ewen – The Province

John Grisdale’s first days on the job with the British Columbia Hockey League occurred in July of 2003.

Duncan Wray, the league’s chairman of the board at the time, was quoted in The Vancouver Sun saying that Grisdale was hired as commissioner of the Junior A loop because BCHL stakeholders were “concerned with raising our profile and getting the message out to the public that we’ve got a great product.”

Grisdale’s final days with the BCHL are underway. The 69-year-old, a former Vancouver Canucks’ defenceman, announced earlier this year he’ll be stepping down at the end of the season after 15 campaigns at the helm.

The RBC Cup national Junior A finale is this weekend at the Prospera Centre, hosted by one of the BCHL’s benchmark franchises in the Chilliwack Chiefs.

The Penticton Vees are another of the standard bearers in the 17-team loop. On Tuesday, they announced during a news conference that 16-year-old forward Massimo Rizzo would be back for a second season in 2018-19 and would be their captain.

Rizzo was the No. 15 overall selection by the Kamloops Blazers in the 2016 WHL bantam draft. It feels, at least, like the BCHL is starting to get those type of up-and-comers a lot more often.

The league was home to three first-round picks in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, via Vees’ centre Tyson Jost, Vees’ defenceman Dante Fabbro and Chiefs’ defenceman Dennis Cholowski. It could have another first rounder next month if Penticton defenceman Jonny Tychonick slips into the tail end of the opening 31 picks like some suggest he might.

Victoria Grizzlies’ forward Alex Newhook, named the Canadian Junior A rookie of the year last week, is getting buzz as a potential lottery draft pick for 2019.

For comparison, the league featured five NHL first rounders from 2004 to 2015.

You can argue where that surge in young talent is coming from. You can debate who the main driving force is. Without question, though, the league has more cachet than it did when Grisdale first entered it. That should be your take away on his BCHL tenure.

“I think John has done a tremendous job of combining or merging the varying needs and wants of the league’s owners,” Surrey Eagles’ general manager Blaine Neufeld said of Grisdale, who played 199 games with the Canucks from 1974-79.

“He’s had a feel all along for what the league needs moving forward. The league has only gained more and more respect over his time. He’s done a great job of advancing what’s now the premier Junior A league in the country.”

The BCHL has yet to announce Grisdale’s successor. He or she will have considerable work to do. The BCHL lost one of its leaders when Wray, the 68-year-old owner of the Vernon Vipers, died in his sleep in January.

As well, there were a number of coaches fired this season, which, collectively, can’t help the league’s recruiting. That included the Chiefs parting ways with Jason Tatarnic just before the RBC was about to start.

Despite that late switch, Chilliwack has qualified for Saturday’s semifinals at the RBC, as has the BCHL champion Wenatchee Wild.

Heading into Wednesday’s action, there was still a possibility the two clubs could meet in Sunday’s title match. There would be no greater sendoff possible for Grisdale.

“I think he’s taken our league forward by leaps and bounds,” said veteran West Kelowna Warriors’ GM and coach Rylan Ferster, whose team increased the BCHL’s RBC crowns accumulated during Grisdale’s reign to five when they won it all in Lloydminster, Sask., in 2016.

“I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve seen our league come so far and in so many different ways and John’s been at the helm.”