As most Alberta Junior Hockey League players have done during their careers, they’ve made the crosstown commute from the Sherwood Park Arena to Grant Fuhr Arena or vice-versa in their pursuit to get to the next level.
For the select few, that next level may be as high as the National Hockey League or as standard as following the NCAA route, but on that inevitable bus route, those players will be just a matter of blocks from the Clare Drake Arena, home to the University of Alberta Golden Bears men’s ice hockey program, the most successful post-secondary men’s ice hockey team in Canada built up to what it is today thanks largely to a supporting cast of AJHL alumni.
For the select few who make their way back to that arena to begin their post-secondary careers, stepping out onto the ice isn’t just a matter of continuing a legacy, it’s a matter of seizing the opportunity and taking every advantage of it.
Before the start of the camp for the Golden Bears in the 1988-89 season, a young defenceman from the St. Albert Saints approached then Golden Bears head coach Bill Moores for the same thing — a chance. What happened over the next two and a half decades has been nothing short of life changing for the blue liner from Bonnyville.
“I was 19 so I came here just for the experience and ended up sticking,”Golden Bears head coach Serge Lajoie said, who took over the head coaching role of the Golden Bears earlier this year after his former teammate, Ian Herbers, accepted a job with the Edmonton Oilers.
“The start of it was just to gain more experience, but when I did end up making the team it was obviously an impactful time.”
Joined by Saints teammate Stan Marple and a cast of other players that included Lloydminster Bobcats head coach Gord Thibodeau — fresh off the conclusion of his junior hockey career with the Fort Saskatchewan Traders — and future NHL head coach Cory Clouston, the Golden Bears were an unstoppable force.
Things came full circle for Lajoie and Marple in the 1991-92 season, as the Golden Bears won their eighth national championship in program history. A mere 24 years later, the duo are back together again, working on winning the school’s 16th national men’s ice hockey championship and the program’s third in a row.
“I always maintain I grew up here at the (University of Alberta), learned how to play the game, but also developed as a person,” Lajoie added. “It’s an environment that has a very rich tradition, but it’s a tradition of excellence and the constant pursuit of excellence and that’s just the environment I wanted to be a part of and continue to grow as a coach and as a person.”
Eligibility restrictions have kept both off the ice during games these days, but age hasn’t kept Lajoie and Marple from finding hidden gem after hidden gem from the AJHL in a league that primarily sees players come from the major junior ranks.
When the Golden Bears celebrated their national title for the 2014-15 season, 13 players had some form of experience at the junior A hockey level, with nine of those players gaining experience in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Stephane Legault — who played briefly for the St. Albert Steel – scored the opening goal. Formerly of the Traders and Steel, defenceman Thomas Carr assisted on the winning goal while former Fort McMurray Oil Barons net minder Kurtis Mucha delivered a win in net.
The AJHL alumni didn’t take over the game, but they provided enough of a difference to justify Marple’s recruitment strategy, which meant looking back to the league he closed out his junior career in.
“You’ve got to look at everybody and all the available players too you and find the right fit for your program,” Marple said. “I think if you exclusively look at the WHL, you might be missing a diamond in the rough so to speak.
“For me it’s just about finding the best players available and giving guys an opportunity.”
To put the Golden Bears accomplishments in perspective, consider that the Atlantic University Sport Conference has won 13 combined national championships, two less than what the Golden Bears have done as one team. The RSEQ and the rest of the Canada West conference have won slightly more than half of what the Golden Bears have.
The Ontario University Athletics Conference has 18 titles to their credit as a group, though their most successful team, the University of Toronto, has just 10 titles.
This year’s Golden Bears team again features a heavy contingent from the AJHL. Former Spruce Grove Saints and Lloydminster Bobcats goaltender Ryan Demharter, Fort McMurray Oil Barons defenceman Will Tomchuk as well as Drayton Valley Thunder teammates Marc-Olivier Daigle and Tanner Clarkson are all earning ice time with the Golden Bears.
“After exploring a few options, the (University of Alberta) was definitely at the top of my list,” Clarkson said. “It’s hard to deny the great excellence and the tradition and success they’ve had in recent years. When I was given the opportunity to be part of such a great organization, it’s hard to turn down.”
The Golden Bears are also in another familiar situation this season, hovering near the top of the Canada West men’s ice hockey standings and never falling lower than fourth in the CIS Men’s Hockey Top 10 rankings.
Reunited once again, Lajoie and Marple are turning the chemistry they had as teammates into the continuation of the winning legacy of the Golden Bears program. Their AJHL experience has not only influenced the composition of their rosters, but national champions as well.
What started with one tryout for Lajoie in the late 1980s has blazed a trail to today for junior A hockey players to continue their playing careers in the province they’ve called home after junior hockey ends.
From Bobcats lining up next to Saints and being paired with members of the MOB and Thunder, it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
From major junior to junior A and back again, players at the University of Alberta don’t come to the school to play out their careers, they come with a purpose, which has already been accomplished 15 times over, but still hasn’t satisfied any member of the roster or coaching staff. Regardless of where you’ve played in the past or could play in the future, the AJHL alumni have made their presence known not only throughout the Clare Drake Arena, but the rest of the country, mostly through the same term — opportunity — Lajoie used to get his start, which led to a lifetime in hockey.
“Once they come to the Bears, there’s no division about where you played,” Marple added. “It’s about how are you playing right now.
“If you deserve and earn the opportunity to play then you’re going to get it.”