Fans and players continue to ride AJHL roller coaster

On Jan. 20, the British Columbia Hockey League announced during the All-Star weekend that five Alberta Junior Hockey League teams had agreed to terms on joining the BCHL at the start of the 2024-25 season. These teams are the Brooks Bandits, Blackfalds Bulldogs, Okotoks Oilers, Spruce Grove Saints, and Sherwood Park Crusaders. We don’t know what the terms are just yet as the BCHL said there would be further information like league structure in the coming weeks. It added there would be no further comment until then.

Once the announcement was made, there was massive speculation on what the terms were and how they would affect the landscape of college track hockey in Canada. Also, how would the terms affect the five teams making the jump — whether they would be allowed to continue with their season or be suspended?

There is also speculation that the BCHL’s announcement was because of leaked reports the day before about the teams leaving the AJHL. The information released on Jan. 20 was likely the BCHL trying to get in front of the story to hinder any more rumours from spreading.

AJHL’s responses

Following the announcement from the BCHL, the AJHL made a blanketed statement saying that they were informed by the BCHL’s announcement that the five member teams would be joining the BCHL in the 2024-25 season. They also said that they would asses the next steps and scheduling for the remainder of the season. The AJHL then announced that they were cancelling the games that weekend involving teams from the five and the remaining 11 member teams.

While the games noted in the X post above were cancelled, a game between Spruce Grove and Okotoks went on as planned and counted toward the league standings.

At this point, there’s been no announcement from the Canadian Junior Hockey League, Hockey Alberta, or Hockey Canada.

On Jan. 22, the AJHL released another statement after rumours made the rounds that it had suspended those five teams indefinitely. The league stated that it would continue to operate as a member of the CJHL and hadn’t suspended any of its 16 teams. It also stated that all games played have been league-sanctioned using AJHL officials and counted toward the league standings.

The AJHL proceeded to cancel the games for Okotoks, Spruce Grove, and Sherwood Park on Jan. 23 and 24 respectively. They finish the statement by reiterating they are assessing the next steps and scheduling implications.

Following these last two statements, there has been a backlash against the AJHL for punishing the players that had committed to play in their league.

The AJHL made a major statement on Jan. 25. The announcement says the league continues to evaluate the best path forward after the BCHL’s announcement that the five AJ teams were planning on leaving to play unsanctioned hockey starting in the 2024-25 season. The AJHL goes on to say that it is taking steps to protect its integrity and CJHL playoff system. It explains a desire to ensure the safety of the players and officials.

The AJHL then proceeded to cancel all games between the five teams and the remaining 11 member teams. Scheduled games between the other 11 teams continued while games between the five teams leaving also will go ahead. Whether the games between Brooks, Spruce Grove, Blackfalds, Sherwood Park, and Okotoks will count toward the standings is another story.

The league continued to say it’s working with the CJHL, Hockey Alberta, and Hockey Canada to find a resolution to the situation “created by the five defecting teams and the BCHL”.

After the last statement, there were mixed reactions online, with some saying, “Good for the AJHL providing consequences for (the teams’) actions” while others called the AJHL “pathetic” and “a joke” and that the league was “punishing players who did nothing wrong”.

The five teams respond

After the AJHL released its latest statement, the five teams released a group statement on Jan. 25, saying they remain members in “good standing with the AJHL, CJHL, Hockey Alberta, and Hockey Canada” and that they “have not entered into an agreement to leave those organizations”, nor made an announcement about it. The rub here is that those teams reposted the BCHL’s original announcement from Jan. 20 — so clearly they agreed with it at some point.

The teams say they fully intend on fulfilling their commitments for the remainder of the 2023-24 season and playoffs. They also don’t agree with the AJHL’s decision to cancel the games between them and the 11 other teams. They want their players on the ice and competing for the AJHL championship.

The AJHL then released another statement on Jan. 26 seeking clarity from the five teams and the BCHL. They state that the statement released by the five defecting teams contradicts the announcement released by the BCHL and “the negative impact it has had on its players and families”.

They continue to reiterate what they stated in the first section about the five teams’ denial, which contradicts the BCHL’s announcement. They also say that the five-team statement is at odds with a media comment from Brooks Bandits President Paul Seaton who stated “Nothing has been signed yet but an agreement has been reached and our board has agreed to it unanimously … The information wasn’t supposed to be out until May 1.”

The statement then continues to accuse the five teams of saying the BCHL released a false statement and calls on the BCHL and the clubs to provide immediate clarification.

The AJHL finishes by saying, “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 decision will remain in place.”

Overall thoughts

There is a lot of talk that the AJHL is punishing the players and should allow them to finish off the season and playoffs, especially the 20-year-olds in the final season of their junior hockey eligibility.

My take from all of this is that the AJHL thinks these five teams are just going to up and leave in the middle of the season and not fulfill their obligations for the 2023-24 season. There has been no statement or response from the CJHL, Hockey Alberta, or Hockey Canada about this situation. You would think that the governing bodies would say at least that they are looking into the situation and if need be, have no further comment.

Several questions still linger. Did the BCHL jump the gun on its announcement? Is the AJHL in the right to cancel games involving the five teams and the remaining 11? What are the CJHL, Hockey Alberta, and Hockey Canada’s stances on this? Does this make the BCHL and AJHL look bad?

And finally, is this the next step in Hockey Canada making changes to college track junior hockey in Canada?