Hockey teams restricted from playing in Alberta

by Phil Ambroziak

The Meadow Lake Minor Hockey Association has a lot of work ahead of it prior to the start of the 2013-2014 season thanks to a recent ruling from the Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA).

During its spring AGM, SHA announced it now requires all associations that wish to play in leagues outside of Saskatchewan to apply for permission to do so. Meadow Lake Minor Hockey did just that in an effort to continue to allow its Bantam Stampeders to play in the North Eastern Alberta Hockey League’s (NEAHL) Tier I division, as well as other teams to compete at a greater competitive level.

“Meadow Lake did apply and we did meet with them to discuss the application, but the request was denied,” explained Derek Derow, SHA manager of operations.

Derow went on to say there were several reasons for this, the first and foremost being what he considered a small number of players who actually played in Alberta from one season to the next.

“Close to half the teams still play in Saskatchewan, so our committee felt if the STEP League was good enough for some Meadow Lake players, why couldn’t it be good enough for them all,” he said.

Meadow Lake Minor Hockey Association president Richard Temple is disappointed in the ruling, stating there are many parents who believe their children should be playing a higher calibre of hockey than what’s offered on this side of the border.

“Some of our parents want to give their kids more of a challenge,” he said. “Tiered hockey is offered in places like Prince Albert, but teams from there won’t come to Meadow Lake and I don’t blame them. It was ideal to play in the Alberta league because of our close proximity to the border.”

Temple said this doesn’t mean the association doesn’t appreciate the STEP League, which he added can also be competitive.

“But, it’s designed for everyone – from non-skaters to people who have played hockey for several years,” he said. “It’s really designed for smaller towns so they can put all their kids in one basket and fly with it.”

Lloyd Esau, coach of the Bantam Stampeders last season, agreed.

“Now, if they want to play at that same level, they’ll be required to travel to a larger centre in Saskatchewan, which isn’t very convenient,” Esau said. “We did have some boys who did that, but to get to practices twice a week as well as games is tough.”

Saskatchewan’s female hockey players are also affected by the new rule. Instead of playing for the East Central Alberta Female Hockey League (ECAFHL), female players have been moved to the North Saskatchewan Hockey League (NSHL).

“This is going to be quite a hardship for the girls,” explained last year’s female bantam coach Louise Slater. “The NSHL does not currently have a bantam team while other teams would be required to travel to places such as Nipawin, Melfort and Prince Albert. That’s quite a distance for us to go when we’re used to going to Lloydminster and Cold Lake.”

Slater said the bantam girls could still play midget hockey, but some people just don’t want to do that.

“This decision puts us 10 steps back on the female hockey side of things,” she said. “We established ourselves fairly good in the East Central Alberta Female Hockey League. It was a well-organized league that allowed the players to compete against girls of the same age and in games that were easy to travel to. Now, we’re heading into the unknown.”

This season, Slater will be the commissioner for Meadow Lake’s entire female division.

“I did not expect to have so much work ahead of me,” she noted. “A lot of decisions need to be made in the next couple weeks. I hope we have a successful year wherever we end up playing.”

Meanwhile, Esau said Pierceland has been permitted to still play in Alberta because of how close it is to the border and because it’s considered an isolated community.

As for why SHA felt inclined to introduce the rule change, Derow said, with so many people playing in two provinces, it made things difficult in terms of the tiering system and ensuring any suspensions that are levied in one province were being adhered to in another.

“We’ve had very much trouble dealing with that aspect,” he said. “This rule has been put in place to allow us to know who exactly is playing in an Alberta league and vice versa.”

Temple, however, said he could not recall any examples of something like this happening with Meadow Lake players.

“It’s really frustrating for me because I feel they’re not giving us adequate enough reasoning, but whatever the governing body decides we’ll follow,” Temple said. “But, at the same time, I still have to answer to the parents and I’m not able to give them a good reason as to why their kids can no longer play at a higher level of hockey.”

Derow disagreed with this, stating the quality of hockey is just as good in Saskatchewan.

“This is a never-ending story,” he said. “We call it the lure of the extra A in Alberta, but it doesn’t mean the level of hockey is any better or any worse from one province to the next.”

Since the request to compete in Alberta was denied, Meadow Lake Minor Hockey has filed an appeal with Hockey Canada to have the SHA ruling changed. A final decision has yet to be rendered. In the meantime, the association’s annual registration night is scheduled for Sept. 4. Temple is optimistic there will still be a strong turnout in spite of the recent SHA changes.

“We’ll probably still get between 300-350 players come out,” he said. “I think they’ll still want to play hockey. They may not like it (the ruling), but kids want to play the game and adults want to be involved.”

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