John Evans just wants to play hockey.
Even if that means moving to Iowa.
With the BC Hockey League still in a holding pattern due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related provincial health orders, the 18-year-old South Surrey resident and budding BC Hockey League star recently left the West Kelowna Warriors – where he was waiting to start his second season – for the United States Hockey League’s Dubuque Fighting Saints.
While the BCHL has repeatedly had to push its start date forward – original plays to drop the puck in December have now been pushed to early February – the USHL has been playing since November.
“It was definitely a pretty tough decision. I loved playing in West Kelowna,” Evans told Black Press Media Wednesday afternoon from Dubuque.
“I loved the city, I loved the staff and everyone involved with the organization. It was a tough decision to come to Dubuque, but I felt that in order to keep improving and keep playing this season, it had to be done.”
Evans noted that it was Dubuque that reached out to him – they acquired his rights and arranged a transfer-fee to be paid to the Warriors – but had the team not done so just before Christmas, he would have started to explore his hockey-playing options.
ROSTER UPDATE: The Fighting Saints have added John Evans from the BCHL. Evans had 50 points in 57 games with the West Kelowna Warriors last year.— Dubuque Fighting Saints (@fightingsaints) January 4, 2021
📸 : Tami Quan Photography pic.twitter.com/km62XfdF0P
Time was especially of the essence for Evans considering this is his final year of junior hockey; he’s set to play this fall at the University of New Hampshire.
“My rights were held by any other USHL team, and I just got off the ice one day and my advisor called me and told me that Dubuque had picked up my rights. It was pretty surprising – I didn’t have any idea.
“After that, things started happening pretty quickly. I talked to the team twice and then decided I wanted to come down there.”
Last season with the Warriors, Evans scored 22 goals and added 28 assists in 57 games, and in this year’s exhibition season, he tallied 15 points in 13 games before the league shut down.
From mid-November until heading to Iowa, Evans had been skating three times a week with a small group of players in South Surrey.
Evans said his teammates in West Kelowna – as well as his head coach and team owner – were supportive of his decision to move south.
”My coach and owner realized that this was a good opportunity for me… and my teammates know that not everyone gets the opportunity to come down here and play, so they were supportive as well,” Evans said.
“I still keep in touch with all of them, and I’ll be following the progress of their season if it does end up getting going.”
His parents were supportive of the decision to join the Fighting Saints too, he said.
“Obviously, they were pretty sad when I left but they know that it’s important for me to play, and they know how badly I wanted to play hockey this season,” Evans said.
“They know this is the best opportunity for me to play – especially at a high level.”
First USHL game ✅— Dubuque Fighting Saints (@fightingsaints) January 12, 2021
First USHL goal ✅
John Evans didn't wait to get things started! pic.twitter.com/qYiLcJIJO9
Evans isn’t the only high-profile BCHL player to leave for the USHL.
While transaction lists and rosters haven’t been routinely updated while the junior circuit is on hiatus, it’s estimated that about two dozen players have left for the U.S. – either to join teams in other junior leagues like the USHL or to start their NCAA careers early.
Some teams – the Penticton Vees and Nanaimo Clippers chief among them – have lost multiple players.
In mid-December, the owner of the Clippers made a plea to the province to let the league begin play.
“Dr. Bonnie Henry decided to shut us down on no evidence or science,” Wes Mussio said in a press release issued shortly after the BCHL’s exhibition season was shut down. “Simply put, this decision is hard to understand.
“I doubt anyone can argue, in good conscience, that destroying careers of young (athletes) is perfectly acceptable for the greater good.”
That plea was followed by letters written by some of the team’s players – many of whom are in their final seasons of junior hockey.
“Without being able to practise or compete and prove myself deserving of a scholarship, I feel my dream slipping away,” Clippers goaltender Jordan Naylor wrote.
“As a 20-year-old, I have no more time. It’s now or never for me.”
Though he isn’t at the end of his junior-hockey eligibility, Evans said he had similar feelings – he didn’t want to move up to the NCAA ranks without having played a real game for months. Evans told PAN it’s a sentiment shared by one of his new teammates, 17-year-old Matthew Savoie – who was expected to play with the Western Hockey League’s Winnipeg Ice this season, but came south in search of a season.
“I’ve talked to Matt about it since I’ve been down here, and he’s in the same boat as me. He just wanted to develop more and get a chance to play. That’s the most important thing – to be able to play. Practising just isn’t the same,” Evans said.
Before joining his new team, Evans said any concerns he had about moving to the United States in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic were calmed after a discussion with the team’s general manager, who told Evans players and staff are testing every week, among other precautions.
“I was assured that they were doing everything they can to keep everyone safe, and I just have to do my part too,” he said. “Honestly, after that (talk), I wasn’t really too worried about it.”
He’s fit in well with his new club, with one goal and two assists in four games.
“It’s been great. All the guys are great and I’ve started to adjust to the league now,” he said. “I’m just excited to keep playing, and we’ll see how things go.”
– with files from the Nanaimo News-Bulletin