The Alberta Junior Hockey League is making its stance clear on the issue of Cold Lake joining the SJHL. First reported by Robb Hunter, the voice of the Bonnyville Pontiacs, the AJHL isn't comfortable with efforts to bring a Junior-A hockey team to Cold Lake to play in the SJHL. While the Alberta league has zero issue with the SJHL expanding within its own borders, the AJHL is concerned with the proximity of Cold Lake to franchises in Bonnyville and Lloydminster and what that means for marketing dollars and the local talent pool.
The SJHL features a few sets of teams in pretty close proximity. Think Weyburn/Estevan, Nipawin/Humboldt/Melfort and of course, Melville/Yorkton. All of these teams make it work, at least from the outside looking in. "I think it would be a different scenario if the AJHL, within the confines of the boundaries of the Alberta borders, were to say 'let's go ahead and do that' and go into Cold Lake," AJHL President Craig T. Cripps said over the phone this morning, "but when you have another province's league coming in I think that certainly warrants discussion not only with the AJHL, but perhaps with Hockey Alberta." Cripps was very candid in his discussion of the situation regarding the SJHL's possible expansion. He explained the AJHL's own Board of Governors would, more than likely not vote to place a team into the area "out of respect" for the Pontiacs and the Bobcats.
That's tough news for the people behind the push to bring Junior-A hockey to Cold Lake. As mentioned in the first story on possible expansion, there's a beautiful rink entering the final stages of construction in the city and there's every intention that it will house an AJHL or SJHL franchise some day. However, as ownership group leader Derek Prue mentioned last week, the AJHL isn't very interested in expanding from 16 teams. "The AJHL Board of Governors has decided that expansion isn't on the table at this time," Cripps commented, "Certainly we have communities that would like to have a franchise in the AJHL, but we have to look at the depth of our product. We have to look at the number of individuals that are playing the game at this level and we don't want to dilute our talent pool to the effect where we just don't feel we have a very competitive Junior-A league in Alberta."
With expansion seemingly out of the question (Cripps did mention the Board can always re-evaluate), relocation would have to be the next option. The St. Albert Steel situation comes to mind, though Cripps couldn't offer any updates. The AJHL Board of Governors has a conference call scheduled for Wednesday to discuss the St. Albert. Though relocation certainly isn't the potential ownership group's first choice, I have a feeling they would take that route if it's the only option. The problem with relocation is this... if there are other communities (ie: Whitecourt) in the running to move a franchise (ie: St. Albert) those options would likely be more attractive to the league to avoid the cluster of teams in the North-East. The thing Cold Lake certainly has going for it is the new facility, but is that enough to counteract the theory that there isn't enough money to go around?
With the AJHL route seemingly not an option, the theoretical Cold Lake franchise is left exploring options in the SJHL. With the AJHL in opposition to that avenue, the options become severely limited. Though the AJHL doesn't have final say in the matter (as far as I know), the league's voice is certainly an important one when it comes to the various approvals the Cold Lake franchise would need. Alberta Minor Hockey will likely take the AJHL's recommendations into serious consideration along with the CJHL.
It will certainly be interesting to see where the issue progresses with Alberta Minor Hockey as the progression firmly rests with that legislative group for the time being.
You can listen to my full interview with AJHL President Craig T. Cripps on the Audio on Demand page.