The BC Hockey League, that includes the Coquitlam Express, has expanded into Alberta.
The junior circuit announced Thursday, Feb. 1, five teams that formerly played in the Alberta Junior Hockey League will now be part of the BCHL, effective immediately.
The Blackfalds Bulldogs, Brooks Bandits, Okotoks Oilers, Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints will play out the remainder of their seasons competing against each other to determine an Alberta champion, with a series against the league's B.C. champion a possibility afterward.
The arrangement was necessitated when the AJHL reacted to an announcement Jan. 20 that the five teams had reached an agreement to join the BCHL beginning next season by suspending all their games against the league's remaining 11 teams.
“With the unfortunate situation the Alberta teams have faced in recent weeks with having games cancelled in their previous league, it was imperative to us to get these players back on the ice in meaningful competition,” said BCHL commissioner Steven Cocker in a statement.
The AJHL, in its own statement, blamed the five teams for their predicament.
“For the past week, they have repeatedly denied any agreement with the BCHL, but today’s admission of ‘finalized franchise agreements and integration’ helped clarify their true position,” said the league, adding it would continue to investigate the circumstances of the teams’ departure.
In an FAQ published on the BCHL’s website, the league said roster rules for the Alberta teams, as well as division alignments and scheduling, will be worked out in time for the 2024-25 season. It said the five new teams initiated discussions about a possible move to the west coast circuit.
Express general manager Tali Campbell said he couldn’t immediately comment on the impact the expansion to Alberta will have on the team or its business operations.
The BCHL pulled out of Hockey Canada last June to operate independently.
At the time, it said the move would provide opportunities for more players to attain scholarships to post-secondary programs by allowing teams to recruit additional players from other provinces, the U.S. as well as Europe and Asia while still complying with roster minimums for homegrown talent.
The league said the Alberta teams were similarly motivated.
“This was about the players,” said a statement. “These teams now have the benefit of operating outside of the Hockey Canada system and are no longer restrained by their roster regulations.”
However the sport’s national governing body and its provincial affiliate, BC Hockey, haven’t taken kindly to the BCHL’s divorce, barring teams, players, coaches and officials under their domain from any association with the league. Even minor teams can no longer participate in mini exhibition games during intermissions.
In addition, BC Hockey immediately elevated its various Tier II junior leagues, like the Pacific Junior Hockey League that includes the Port Moody Panthers and Port Coquitlam Trailblazers, to fill the Junior A status previously occupied by the BCHL. But their full designation can’t be attained until each team has undergone a full evaluation of its organizational structure, business operations, player development programs, player experience and operational capabilities.
Wednesday, the PJHL announced it has partnered with Vancouver-based Blackfin Sports Group to conduct the audits.