There's a Junior Arms Race Out West

WHL players are joining Jr. A teams while they wait for their season to begin - but not every AJHL franchise is open to the idea.
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Jake Neighbours. Photo courtesy CHL Images.

Jake Neighbours. Photo courtesy CHL Images.

The Alberta Jr. A League is already one of the best Jr. A circuits in Canada, forming a top tier alongside the neighboring BCHL. Now, thanks to delays to the WHL season, the AJHL is seeing an influx of talent from major junior - though not every team is taking advantage.

Officially, the WHL has allowed its players temporary transfers to Jr. A, Jr. B or under-18 teams through mid-December, with WHL training camps expected to open after Christmas. Since the league last played games in March, it's understandable that its players want to get into game action as soon as possible and the AJHL has been one of the top options so far. That league is already knee-deep in exhibition games and the regular season is slated to start Nov. 13.

The Brooks Bandits (where Cale Makar played) made a big splash last week when they announced the signing of two 2020 NHL first-rounders: Jake Neighbours (STL) of the Edmonton Oil Kings and Ozzy Wiesblatt (SJ) of the Prince Albert Raiders. And the Bandits aren't alone.

The Grande Prairie Storm, for example, have brought in Colorado Avalanche prospect Sasha Mutala, Washington Capitals pick Garin Bjorklund, his brother Paycen Bjorklund and right winger Edge Lambert. While Mutala is from Vancouver, the rest are local products. All but Garin Bjorklund are coming from the Tri-City Americans; the Caps goalie prospect plays for Medicine Hat.

Grande Prairie GM and coach Mike Vandekamp thinks it's important to have relationships with high-end local players and believes getting some of those kids into a Storm jersey can have a positive impact on his team.

"Obviously those players should make our team more competitive right now and every game counts and we want to win games," he said. "Getting to know these guys, we felt we were adding really good character to our group and ultimately, sitting down with all of them, I asked them to do their best to be a positive example and be professionals every day, hopefully leaving a mark on some of our younger players in doing so."

Over in the Edmonton suburbs, the Sherwood Park Crusaders have been making a splash in the pre-season thanks to WHLers Nick Bowman, Matt Savoie and Dylan Guenther. Savoie (2022 draft) comes from the Winnipeg Ice, while Guenther (2021) is coming off a fantastic campaign with the Edmonton Oil Kings. Recently they've played on a devastating line with University of Nebraska-Omaha commit Ty Mueller, himself a 2021 draft prospect.

"For the short-term pain, the long gain for our young guys - the guys who aren't getting as much ice right now - is having those guys around, showing them how to be pros," said Crusaders GM Kyle Chase. "I think it's a huge win for them, too."

But not every AJHL team is dipping into the WHL pool. The Olds Grizzlys actually released a public statement that they would not be bringing in any WHLers, as they did not think it was fair to the kids who had already been recruited by the team. There is no draft in the AJHL, so scouting and recruiting is crucial and according to governor, part-owner and VP of hockey operations Trent Wilhauk, the team's word is bond.

"It's a tough grind because there are a lot of options," he said. "We've sat with kids and their parents, explaining to them why coming to Olds would be good for them and selling them on our program. How do you look a kid in the eye that you've worked hard to recruit and played in games and then tell him you're going to cut him for a WHL player for a couple months? We don't think it's right."

AJHL teams do have to get down to a 25-man roster for Nov. 13, though Vandekamp is willing to play with a 23-man roster and already has one player on long-term injury who should be ready when the WHLers leave Grande Prairie. If the WHL season begins on time, of course.

"There's no guarantee that any league is going to play at any time right now," Vandekamp said. "So there's a calculated risk or thought that you never know, even at that level. What if those guys don't play? It would be a positive thing to have those kids on our team."

WHL commissioner Ron Robison previously stated that for his league to be financially viable, arenas would have to be allowed at least 50 percent capacity by local health authorities. The AJHL doesn't have that requirement, as the league is charging players to play this season in order to mitigate the financial strain of the pandemic.

In the short term, Grande Prairie and Sherwood Park are among the teams getting boosts from their new high-end players and it certainly is fun watching high-end kids teaming up together. But Wilhauk is hoping his franchise benefits from taking its own stand on the issue.

"It could be an advantage long-term," he said. "When our scouts are out pounding the pavement and recruiting, people will see that we stayed loyal to the kids who stayed loyal to us."

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