Over the weekend, the independent British Columbia Hockey League announced five teams from the Alberta Junior Hockey League would be joining for the 2024-25 season. The announcement the Blackfalds Bulldogs, Brooks Bandits, Okotoks Oilers, Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints would be leaving came as a surprise to most, especially the AJHL, who learned about the change through the media release from the BCHL.
The move also sent ripples throughout Junior A hockey across Canada.
Kyle McIntyre is the commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
"As a league, as a partner in the SJHL (Canadian Junior Hockey League), and as a colleague with the commissioner, you're certainly concerned anytime you hear that teams are looking to relocate, or leave a league that has 60 years of history," McIntyre said when asked how the move could impact Junior A hockey. "Certainly, I think people recognize that the plate tectonics of junior hockey are changing, and I know at the national level, the CJHL commissioners have never been more strongly united as a partnership."
He added the CJHL is working with the local hockey associations, such as Hockey Sask here in Saskatchewan, and with Hockey Canada to really identify what are some things that need to be changed in the game, especially what the motivations were for the five teams to leave the AJHL.
The BCHL announced last summer they would be leaving the Hockey Canada umbrella, primarily due to recruiting rules. The BCHL made the move to be able to expand their recruiting pool, as the current guidelines for Hockey Canada prevent players under the age of 18 from playing in other provinces.
"I know their recruiting guidelines are wide open," McIntyre said of the policies in place on the West Coast. "It's the Wild West, so they can take players from all over the world. There's no limit on players from the United States or from Europe."
The SJHL has been emphasizing the recruitment of local talent, encouraging players to stay in Saskatchewan as opposed to going to play in other Junior A leagues.
"Our teams are very well established," McIntyre noted. "They run great programs, we have great coaching, our league is super competitive with lots of competitive balance, and so if a player is really looking at developing his whole game, I think he could certainly do that in the SJHL."
McIntyre also pointed out there is more than on-ice development, with the league providing off-ice development opportunities for players as well.
Since the announcement of the teams heading to the BCHL, there has been online talk across various forums and social media sites suggesting the possibility of mergers of some other leagues in response. One of those suggestions was the merger of the SJHL and the Manitoba Hockey League to the east. McIntyre didn't exactly rule it out but didn't suggest it could happen, either.
"I think we have an excellent thing going here in the league," McIntyre said. "We have 12 super viable franchises, we have very good coaching, we have good competitive balance, and so I'm pretty happy with what we have going on in our league right now. But, there's always an opportunity to look forward and to see other kinds of partnerships and opportunities."
The SJHL and MJHL currently play in the annual SJ-MJ Showcase, which is scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday in Winnipeg. Since the Showcase was first played in 2018, there has also been the suggestion of some interlocking play floated, which is an idea the commissioners of the leagues still discuss from time to time.
"I wouldn't close the door on that," McIntyre added. "I would say it's always a possibility but as of today we don't have any concrete plans."
With the growth of junior hockey and the increase in neutral site games by SJHL teams in recent years, another thing that has been brought up is the possibility of expansion, with the communities of Assiniboia, Warman, Martensville and Meadow Lake most frequently coming up.
"We do have a lot of stability in terms of our franchises," the commissioner shared, pointing out most of the teams in the league have been around for 30 or more years. "The league does have a forward planning and expansion committee that would entertain any kind of application or interest of any teams that were interested in having an expansion team, but personally, 12 is a pretty good number."
He added that while there is a lot of interest in SJHL expansion from some communities there are always concerns about whether there would be enough talent to facilitate more teams. There is also a strong competitive balance in the league as well, and there would be the risk of upsetting that balance.