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The great breakaway: why AJHL teams are leaving to join B.C. league

“You’re seeing this movement at all levels of hockey … where elite players are looking at the most efficient way of moving to the next level."
Canmore Eagles Logan Ziegler battles for the puck at home against the Brooks Bandits at the Canmore Recreation Centre in March 2023. JUNGMIN HAM RMO PHOTO

ALBERTA – The Brooks Bandits, the best junior hockey team in Canada for the past three seasons, has been the diamond in the crown of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL).

And yet, the Bandits, along with four other Alberta-based teams are breaking away from the AJHL next season to join the independent British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) in what sent a massive shockwave throughout Canadian hockey, with implications that big changes could be in transition.

Dan Mason, a professor with the University of Alberta's Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, said it’s a microcosm of change happening in hockey overall and not just at the Junior A level.

“You’re seeing this movement at all levels of hockey … where elite players are looking at the most efficient way of moving to the next level,” said Mason. “I think that’s what we’re seeing here with the BCHL; breaking away from Hockey Canada is the way they see they can have more ownership and control over the process of players moving to the next level, which in this case is the NCAA.”

The BCHL is gaining traction from players and teams looking at getting more exposure from United States and U Sport universities and colleges, combined with the opportunity to recruit from a greater pool of top U18 players from across North America.

Last year, the 18-team BCHL separated from Hockey Canada, meaning it operates outside of its system, and then boasted about sending more players to NCAA Division I teams than the rest of the junior hockey leagues in Canada combined. The BCHL said its alumni made up nearly a quarter of all NCAA Division I college hockey in the 2022-23 season.

Historically, the BCHL is stronger than other junior leagues, and with a better pool of players, it results in more eyes from scouts and greater opportunities to go to the next level of development.

It makes sense why players and teams from other leagues would want to be a part of that, said Mason.

“The teams that are leaving from the AJHL have sort of used that same kind of model in terms of positioning themselves as the ideal place to be scouted or the ideal place to play if you want to get scouted to play in the NCAA,” said Mason, whose research focuses on sports leagues and franchises.

“I think that's something that fits logically, where you could go and play against other teams that are going to be heavily scouted.

“We're seeing the attraction of players from all over North America to the B.C. hockey league, and I think that's something that they wanted.”

The BCHL scored big on Saturday (Jan. 20) when the league announced the Bandits, Spruce Grove Saints, Okotoks Oilers, Blackfalds Bulldogs and Sherwood Park Crusaders of the AJHL would join the neighbouring league for the 2024-25 season.

The BCHL said further information, such as league structure, will be announced in the coming weeks.

It was the BCHL’s second power play against Hockey Canada in less than eight months. The first being its departure from the sport’s national governing body to create a new era that “opens doors for players.”

“We are entering a new era that will eliminate barriers and change the landscape of junior hockey in Canada,” said the BCHL's May 1, 2023 statement.

By becoming a league separate from Hockey Canada, BCHL teams can also recruit the best 16- and 17-year-old players outside of the province, which isn’t allowed under Hockey Canada rules.

Leagues under the Hockey Canada umbrella are subject to its rules and regulations.

When a player, team, or league operates outside of Hockey Canada’s system, certain privileges are forfeited such as eligibility to compete in provincial and national championships hosted by the national governing body, among others.

On the unexpected announcement, Hockey Canada provided a statement to the Outlook, which said it will continue to work with Hockey Alberta, the AJHL, and the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) to “provide opportunities to safely enjoy, develop and compete in Canada’s game in Alberta.”

“While we feel strongly that our model for delivering hockey is to the benefit and safety of players, coaches, officials, parents, administrators and volunteers, we recognize that others are free to enjoy the game outside of Hockey Canada-sanctioned programs,” the statement said.

The CJHL, which overlooks the AJHL, declined to comment.

The Canmore Eagles, the local AJHL team, also declined to comment.

What the shake-up means for the AJHL

With the soon-to-be exit of the three-time national champion Bandits, a heavily scouted club, it could be cause for concern with the amount of exposure the league’s remaining teams receive, said Mason.

“I think it’s going to cause some kind of shakedown for players who are looking to get college scholarships and it could have an impact on how well some of these teams are scouted,” said Mason.

The five teams’ gut-punch departure seemingly caught the AJHL off-guard on Jan. 20, which released a statement after saying “no official notice has been provided to the AJHL by the respective teams.”

“As a league, we are assessing next steps and schedule implications. The AJHL will continue to provide unprecedented development opportunities for our athletes within our valuable communities,” said the Jan. 20 statement.

The league further stated none of its 16 teams have been suspended.

Before the 2023-24 season, the league announced it would be adopting a full interlock schedule, or moving down to one division, which some teams opposed, including the Eagles.

As per Hockey Canada, the AJHL also adopted rule changes recently, such as the mandatory face cage rule for every player by 2025-26.

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

An award-winning reporter, Jordan Small has covered sports, the arts, and news in the Bow Valley since 2014. Originally from Barrie, Ont., Jordan has lived in Alberta since 2013.
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