The future of the Alberta Junior Hockey League will have one of its biggest tests.
Five teams – arguably among some of its best in the 16-team league - will jump ship to the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) when the 2024-25 season rolls around.
With Brooks, Blackfalds, Okotoks, Sherwood Park and Spruce Grove announcing their intent Jan. 20 to join the BCHL, the overall level of quality will take a hit in the AJHL and potentially hurt longstanding local teams as more scouts will undoubtedly turn even greater attention to the BCHL.
And as the scouts go, so too do the players who look to get seen and continue to move as far as possible in the hockey world.
All but Spruce Grove are top four in the AJHL, with the Brooks Bandits perennial champions in not only the AJHL but capturing three consecutive Centennial Cup championships as the top Junior A team in Canada.
Among those teams to be impacted by the move will be the Canmore Eagles, fast approaching its 30th anniversary, with the announcement coming as a surprise to league officials, teams, players and fans.
Locally, the Eagles struggle with much of the same issues residents in the Bow Valley face.
The cost of housing is astronomical, making finding billets an annual chore, the cost of living is equally high, meaning a basic necessity such as groceries can be a deterrent to having players and the cost of running a franchise is equally challenging.
The running of the longtime junior club is a testament to its numerous volunteers, players, billets, coaches, sponsors and anyone else who has contributed.
But for several years, teams such as the Eagles have been unable to keep up on the ice with the top tier of Brooks and Okotoks.
The BCHL withdrew from the Canadian Junior Hockey League in 2021 – an association of Junior A leagues – and chose to not re-up an agreement with Hockey Canada last year, leaving it an independent league.
The powerhouse league said it chose to leave Hockey Canada to allow for more opportunities for players, particularly those under 18 looking to eventually make the move to the NCAA. The move allows BCHL teams to recruit 16- and 17-year-old players from other provinces, which isn’t allowed by Hockey Canada.
Hockey Canada had also mandated changes for all players – including those in the AJHL – to wear face cages, while the AJHL had converted to an interlocking schedule with one division that led to more travel.
The BCHL has long been considered one of – if not the best – Junior A league in the country and has been a consistent feeder system to NCAA Division I schools, many players going to the professional ranks in North America and Europe. As of the 2023-24 NHL season, more than 20 alumni are on active rosters.
The move will see the BCHL grow to 22 teams, with 16 of its current 17 teams based in British Columbia.
But as one league continues to maintain its spot as a destination for upper tier Canadian junior players, the AJHL will need to find a way to maintain its relevancy.
Junior A hockey in Alberta will take a massive hit when the five teams officially leave and enter the BCHL.
The coming months will dictate how the league reacts and attempts to rebound, but the move undoubtedly leaves the AJHL weaker and less eye-catching for NCAA scouts.
In the initial reaction, the AJHL has responded by cancelling games involving the five defecting teams, which isn’t a long-term strategy.
With fewer scouts on hand searching for the next wave of players to send south to Division I and III hockey, the less attractive it becomes for players looking to hit the next stage of development.
The next steps – both short- and long-term – will be key for the AJHL.