5 Alberta hockey teams exiled by AJHL oppose league’s punishment

An unjustified and heavy-handed response.

Mincing no words, the five teams heavily punished by the Alberta Junior Hockey League this week following news they were allegedly leaving for the BCHL issued a group statement after having their season schedules seriously altered.

On Thursday, the AJHL all but exiled the five teams — the Blackfalds Bulldogs, Brooks Bandits, Okotoks Oilers, Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints — by cutting off access to the rest of the league.

The AJHL said the five teams were free to play games, but only against each other and not against the league’s remaining 11 teams.

In response, the five teams said in their statement that they do not agree with the AJHL’s decision.

“Our five teams remain members in good standing of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Canadian Junior Hockey League, Hockey Alberta and Hockey Canada,” reads the statement.

“We have not entered into any agreement to leave any of those organizations, nor have we made any announcement to that effect.”

That’s true.

However, last Friday, rumours began swirling that the five were looking westward towards British Columbia. And on Saturday, the BCHL issued a statement saying “it has come to terms with five Alberta-based teams to join the league for the 2024-25 season.”

Also, an Alberta newspaper published a comment from one of the team’s presidents, saying the news wasn’t supposed to come out until May 1.

The group statement continued, saying “We do not agree that any AJHL games should be cancelled or postponed. We share in the public’s disappointment in the current situation.

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“We strongly believe that our players should be back on the ice playing hockey and competing for an Inter Pipeline Cup, and we will do everything we can to bring this unfortunate situation to a positive resolution.”

In turn, the AJHL issued a response on Friday morning.

“The AJHL is aware of the contradictory statements coming from the BCHL and five defecting clubs, and the negative impact they are having on our players and their families. The denial made late Thursday night by the five clubs directly contradicts the BCHL itself, which said last Saturday that the unsanctioned league and the clubs had ‘committed to terms’ for the teams to join the BCHL starting in the 2024-25 season.”

The AJHL also mentioned the media comment about May 1, adding “Given the suggestion by the five clubs that the BCHL issued a false statement, and the inconsistent and conflicting information coming from the five clubs themselves, the AJHL is calling on the BCHL and the clubs to provide immediate clarification.

“Until such time as the AJHL is satisfied that there are no plans for the five clubs to depart the league to play unsanctioned hockey, the current scheduling decisions remain in place.”

The president and general manager of the Sherwood Park Crusaders was adamant Friday that “no binding decision” had been made with the BCHL.

“We have not signed a document that binds us to playing in that league next year,” Adam Sergerie told Global News.

Sergerie is worried that the players are the ones suffering right now. He added the Crusaders “always had every intention on finishing out the season in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.”

“I’m seeing a group of young men in the dressing room struggle to keep their emotions in check, there’s so much uncertainty,” Sergerie said.

“We’ve got some guys that have made a lot of headway and have done a lot of really good things and they’re finally getting the attention that they deserve, and we need to get them back playing so they can further their career.”

Sergerie said the team has had some “back and forth” conversation with the AJHL and hopes the two sides can come to a resolution.

“They’ve asked for some answers, we’ve asked for some answers, and I think it’s just sorting out the responses from one another,” he said.

“Hopefully within the next five to seven days we have a clearer picture of what’s going to happen.”

Sergerie added the Crusaders have until May 1 to decide whether the team will be entering the BCHL.

In AJHL standings, four of the five teams occupy first through fourth place.

Last summer, the BCHL announced it was becoming an independent league and would no longer be bound by Hockey Canada rules — a move that some hockey insiders call going rogue.

By becoming independent, the BCHL can play by its own recruitment rules. The league’s goal is to increase NCAA recruitment with American junior hockey leagues, such as the USHL.

The BCHL is Canada’s top league for NCAA commitments. In December, the league announced that it set a new benchmark with 193 commitments, eclipsing the old mark of 190.

The AJHL had a record-setting 121 commitments last summer.

However, those numbers pale in comparison to the 16-team USHL, which had 346 NCAA commitments last February.

According to the USHL, of the 1,800 players in NCAA Div. 1, 50.4 per cent played in the USHL. Also, the 32-team NAHL had 186 college commitments as of this week.

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