Fans of the Airdrie Techmation Thunder hockey team will have to wait until next fall – at the earliest – to get their junior B fix.
On Feb. 15, the Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL) announced the cancellation of the 2020-21 season, following a decision by Hockey Alberta the week prior to call off the season for minor, junior and senior teams.
“Everyone in the league held out hope we could put something together that would allow us to have some kind of a meaningful regular season and a playoff following that,” said Scott Fisher, the HJHL’s governor and a vice-president of the junior B league. “But the later it went, the regulations that were put in place, there was just no end in sight to those being lifted. The writing was kind of on the wall and it got to a point where it wasn’t feasible anymore.
According to Fisher, everyone involved with southern and central Alberta's junior B league is disappointed the season will not be able to resume. Teams had been in a holding pattern since November 2020, when sports were once again postponed to help stem a spike in COVID-19 cases across Alberta.
The Airdrie Thunder’s head coach, Chad Moore, reiterated Fisher’s comments, saying everyone involved with the junior B team was sad to see the season ultimately cancelled. However, he said no one was surprised by the decision.
“It’s kind of expected at this point, with everything taking place,” he said. “Obviously, safety and taking precautions for people’s health is the primary concern here, and with the challenges related to everything going on, the decision had to be made.”
The Thunder won the HJHL title in 2019 but were knocked out in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, which were later cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking to bounce back from that setback, Airdrie had started the 2020-21 season strong, winning three of four games in a series against the Mountainview Colts.
“We were heading in a great direction and everyone was on board,” said Moore, who took over the Thunder’s head coach position last summer. “So it’s not the best case scenario because of that, but we have a great group of guys coming back next year.”
The cancelled junior B season comes shortly before Canada’s major junior hockey leagues – including the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – get set to kick off shortened 2021 seasons.
In order to operate, the major junior leagues are implementing enhanced safety procedures and health protocols that echo the measures undertaken by various professional sports leagues since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fisher said he hasn’t sensed any bitterness from players involved with junior A or B hockey that they are not allowed to continue playing while the highest level of junior hockey is able to resume. He said the higher budgets in the major junior leagues allow them to set up “bubble” scenarios that allow the players to minimize their potential exposure to the virus while still suiting up for their teams.
“You see the Red Deer Rebels players literally living in their rink,” Fisher said. “They’re taking all these precautions. It’s an expensive thing to do, and they’re able to do it at that level. All levels below that, they’d find that pretty difficult.”
Fisher said if the Alberta government’s vaccination roll out plan is successful, he anticipates the HJHL will be able to run a full season next year.
“We’re sorry we couldn’t get back on the ice,” he said. “We certainly appreciate both the fans and sponsors for sticking with us through the tough times.”