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Burnaby school sports back after players, coaches 'devastated' by COVID-cancelled seasons

'It’s something the school and the community celebrates,' Byrne Creek Community School coach Bal Dhillon says of his senior boys basketball team

To understand what it means for school sports to start up again this fall, you have to understand the gaping hole COVID-19 left when they were cancelled.

Take just one team at one Burnaby school – the senior boys basketball team at Byrne Creek Community School.

Before the pandemic wiped out the 2020-21 season, the Bulldogs were more than just a basketball team, according to coach Bal Dhillon, who is also the school’s community school coordinator.

“It’s something the school and the community celebrates,” he says, “and it also gives us an identity for the school.”

Dhillon recalls one time when the team returned to the school at lunch after winning a big game at a tournament in the Langley Events Centre.

The game had been played live on a big screen in the atrium, and the atrium erupted in applause when the boys walked in.

‘A beautiful  thing’

With a signature playing style Dhillon describes as “blue collar,” he says the team embodies the school and the diverse community that surrounds it.

“We’re willing to work harder than other teams,” he says, “and we’re willing to do the small things on the floor that maybe the other teams and other players don’t want to do, like dive for a loose ball, put your body on the line, things like that. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

Dhillon says another reason the team has become a kind of rallying point for the school is that it’s “an experience of excellence.”

“When you can have that, it is a special thing, and it's a special thing that goes beyond the team. It’s for the whole community,” Dhillon says.

For players, the team also starts to feel like family, according to Dhillon, and the sport “challenges them in every way,” teaching them to lead and follow and perform under pressure and show compassion to teammates and competitors.

“These are huge things, and, really, I would argue that’s the sole purpose of high school sport, to increase empathy and compassion,” Dhillon says.

With a big group of Grade 11s, the team missed the provincial championships by one game in 2019-20.

It was poised to start 2020-21 stacked with experienced returning players – players who’d put their hearts and souls into the program since Grade 8.

Then COVID hit.


Dhillon says he could see the writing on the wall when spring sports were cancelled in 2020, but he was still “devastated” when it became official that all school sports were being cancelled for the new school year.

When it sank in for the players, he says there was surprisingly little anger but “a lot of sadness, a lot of disappointment and a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness.”

The loss of school sports “definitely affected the atmosphere of the school,” Dhillon says.

And for some of his players, there’s no sugar-coating that the loss of the season damaged future prospects.

“We probably had one or two guys that could have played college basketball, and they just didn’t get that opportunity,” Dhillon says. “I think they also lost a passion for it. When you can’t play in a game and you can only train by yourself, you’ve really got to love it to do that, and those type of players are very rare.”


Getting school sports back up and running has been a big undertaking, according to a school district news release.

“It takes such a massive team to run the athletic program, from the athletic directors, the administration, staff coaches, our community coaches, to our student leaders,” Burnaby North Secondary athletic director Jennifer Oatway says. “And to have everybody working so hard together to restart this – collaborating across the district about what’s working in your school, how we can all help each other and get as many kids back being a part of their school program – has been pretty incredible.”

Currently underway in the district are volleyball, rugby, field hockey, soccer and cross country.

Oatway, who is also the senior girls basketball coach at North and the president of the Burnaby New Westminster Schools Athletic Association, notes Grade 9 students have never had a chance to play a high school sport.

“That’s pretty incredible even to think that their whole Grade 8 year they didn’t know what this was about,” she says. “They didn’t know what it was like to be a part of this culture.”

‘We’ll find out’

For Dhillon, there’s no substitute for school sports.

He says club teams bring a lot of value, but there are barriers to participation, and school sports are just special.

“The high school sport represents its community because the high school’s in this neighbourhood,” he says.

Basketball doesn’t officially start until November, but Dhillon says he has met with players and held a couple open gym sessions.

There’s also been lots of communication with coaches from other schools and other cities, arranging games and tournaments. 

His players are “very excited to play,” he says but the season is bound to be an unpredictable one.

Dhillon notes most of his players, who are now in Grade 11, haven’t played on a school team since Grade 9, so there’s no knowing where the team will end up.

“We’ll find out,” he says.