I was 16 years old when I attended my first Alberta Junior Hockey League game: The Pass Red Devils, now the Calgary Royals, and the Edmonton Mets in the Jasper Place Arena in Edmonton in 1974. The matinee affair ended just before 4:30 p.m. when the Red Devils boarded their team bus and headed south on Edmonton’s 163 Street for the five-hour ride to Blairmore. I was especially struck seeing players reaching for their school books to study during the ride home.
The Mets moved the following year to Spruce Grove and left Edmonton without an AJHL team. Three years later, however, Edmonton businessman Rod Matthews bought a new franchise — the Edmonton Crusaders — so local players could play a high level of junior hockey and carry on post high school studies. I began my sportswriting career writing pieces for the Crusader game day programs. During that time I saw firsthand how players juggled their time between games, practices, studies, family … and, yes, even dating. I found it inspiring. Still do.
In 2004, I was given an assignment to write a weekly column in the Edmonton Journal on the AJHL. I began meeting the real people who make the league work: the players, the coaches, the managers, the owners, the officials, the billets, the bus drivers — everyone. That season ended for me in the middle of May in Weyburn, Saskatchewan when the League Champion Camrose Kodiaks lost in the dying seconds of the RBC Cup final.
When the request came a few weeks ago from the AJHL Office to write features throughout the season celebrating the 50th season I jumped at it. Over the next few months, we will share stories of people who have contributed greatly to the league’s success. Some have great raw talent. Others have tremendous vision. And others can just be summed up as downright characters. They all have one thing in common: an unwavering common denominator: an unwavering commitment to provide countless opportunities for young men through hockey.
Their efforts need to be celebrated — just like a golden anniversary.
Cam Tait writes a free-lance sports column in the Edmonton Journal