The Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) announced Oct. 23 the Calgary Mustangs, currently undergoing a one-year leave of absence from the junior A league, will relocate to Blackfalds for the 2021-22 season.
The news is great for hockey fans in Central Alberta, as it means there will be local representatives at the top three levels of junior hockey. But it got me thinking how there is still no junior A team in Airdrie or Rocky View County (RVC) – something I hope will eventually change.
Airdrie, Cochrane and Chestermere all have vibrant minor hockey scenes, and Airdrie and Cochrane each boast competitive junior B teams that can draw upwards of 400 fans for big games. The populations of these municipalities, not to mention the number of hockey players and fans in the area, could easily support a junior A franchise.
Of course, the main obstacle preventing Airdrie or RVC from obtaining a junior A team is the fact the AJHL is not currently offering expansion opportunities, according to the league’s Vice-president of Communications Charla Flett. That means another team would have to do what the Mustangs are doing – transfer ownership and relocate to another community.
But given the financial difficulties of running a junior A team, another organization relocating is not an impossible scenario in the next few years. The Grande Prairie Storm and Olds Grizzlys, for example, have both struggled with massive debt in recent years, and the Calgary Canucks had to do emergency fundraising last year to stay afloat.
Another obstacle is the size of the hockey facilities in the area. While Flett said there is no minimum standard capacity for the league, AJHL teams typically play in arenas with at least 1,000 seats. The Ron Ebbesen Arena in Airdrie has capacity of just 450, according to the local junior B team’s president, Gord Ziegler, while the Cochrane Arena – where the Cochrane Generals junior B team plays – has a capacity of roughly 700.
AJHL organizations often thrive in smaller, more isolated markets – such as Bonnyville or Brooks, where more than 1,200 fans come out to watch the Bandits play, on average.
Airdrie and RVC are not nearly as isolated as Brooks or Bonnyville, given its proximity to Calgary, where junior A teams don’t seem to draw big crowds. The struggles of junior A teams in Calgary makes sense, given they have to compete for eyeballs with the Flames and the Hitmen, as well as the various collegiate and minor teams.But nearby Okotoks has had a successful AJHL team – on and off the ice – since 2004, despite the town’s proximity to Calgary. The Okotoks Oilers – and its 1,700-capacity rink at Pason Centennial Arena – would be a fine blueprint for any prospective owners of an eventual junior A team in Airdrie or RVC.