Nanaimo Clippers goaltender Jordan Naylor gets into position as Alberni Valley Bulldogs player Ethan Bono takes a shot on net during a game at the Alberni Valley Multiplex on April 28. (Elena Rardon/Black Press)

Nanaimo Clippers’ passion for the game carries them through pandemic season

Coach looks back on season following third-place finish in the BCHL's Island pod

The Nanaimo Clippers faced off against a pandemic, public health orders and a pod, and made it through the season.

The Clippers concluded their 2020-21 season this week with a 5-4 overtime loss Tuesday against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs, ending up third out of four teams in the Island pod with an 8-11-0-1 record.

“It was a grind. Guys were beat up and playing every other day, two days in a row sometimes…” said Darren Naylor, Clippers coach. “We just didn’t have the depth needed to compete [when] you put that many games in a row.”

Nanaimo won its first three games of the pod season, and Naylor said that was the last time the team was healthy.

Early in the pod schedule, there was some feisty hockey as the Island teams re-established rivalries, but as the games went on, Naylor said it seemed as though all the teams wore down a little bit. Partway through the pod season, the B.C. Hockey League announced that there would be no playoff tournaments, which was fine by the Clippers.

“By the time we found out, most teams were [thinking] we probably should have cut it back a few games as it was,” Naylor said.

That said, the Clippers were appreciative of the chance to play hockey after public health orders had pushed back the regular season almost to the brink of cancellation. For athletes who had been working toward these key junior years their whole hockey careers, it took mental toughness to persevere, Naylor said, and when they got a chance to play, the veterans especially were playing for something and younger teammates followed that leadership.

The coach said he thinks this spring’s regular-season games provided opportunities for some of the graduating players to attract interest from NCAA programs.

“There’s schools calling on almost of of them now, so it was beneficial that way,” Naylor said.

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There was one postponed game last month, when a COVID-19 test came back inconclusive, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Naylor said the fall exhibition tournament and the spring regular season showed that BCHL teams can practise and play safely.

“There’s no reason why they should hold us back from starting next year at all. We’ve proven to them twice now that we can carry things on and be responsible,” Naylor said. “I think we’ve proved and shown that we can at least carry on with some sort of a season like we just did, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to be able to start getting fans back in the building. We can’t expect the owners to keep taking these hits.”

Naylor will remain behind the bench as the Clippers and the BCHL work toward a new normal, as he and assistant coach Colin Birkas have had their contracts extended through 2022-23. Naylor said the pandemic challenged coaches, too, as it did players, and said he needs a break before he resets for 2021-22.

“All in all it was a different season, one I hope we never have to encounter again…” Naylor said. “Kudos to the players. They really showed their determination and their passion for the game. They stuck with it.”

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