The Alberta Junior Hockey League has always been a model of excellence on the ice, but it continues to be a leader in the province’s communities off the ice as well.
On January 25, the Spruce Grove Saints will host the Bonnyville Pontiacs in a regularly scheduled game, the difference being the game will be played in Slave Lake, a town devastated by wildfire last spring, when almost half of the community disappeared.
While those fires claimed the homes of many of town’s residents along with community property and facilities, it could not take away the resilient spirit of its people. And in a gesture to take care of its own, the AJHL – in conjunction with the Saints and Pontiacs – will donate all of the proceeds from this game to Slave Lake Minor Hockey.
While the league often plays neutral-site games to market the product, those contests are mostly iced in exhibition season.
Not this time.
In fact, in the extremely competitive AJHL North, this is a huge game in the standings, as the Saints continue to roll atop the group, while Bonnyville is still in the hunt to make a run at the regular season title.
Still, both organizations along with the AJHL, felt it was important to demonstrate a commitment to Alberta communities in need.
Spruce Grove Saints Governor Darren Myshak is thrilled to bring the Saints to Slave Lake.
“We are very excited and feel privileged to be a part of this event, which will showcase our league and teams while supporting all the citizens and Slave Lake Minor Hockey. Growing up and living most of my life in Swan Hills, I have gone through many town evacuations due to forest fires, but I can only imagine what the people of Slave Lake have experienced this past spring,” he said.
“We are looking forward to playing in front of a full house, as I know how good of a hockey community Slave Lake is.
“It is great to be part of a league that values all of our communities in Alberta and offers support where and when it is needed the most. Come to the game expecting two very good Junior hockey teams battling for playoff positioning as this will be no exhibition game.”
Bonnyville Head Coach and GM Chad Mercier says his team is honoured to be part of the game, one to help rebuild a town with demographics very similar to his own.
“Yes, Slave Lake is very similar in many ways to Bonnyville; same size roughly, a lot of the same kinds of industries, and that passion for hockey… we’re just happy to have the opportunity to give back this way,” he said.
” We don’t want the importance of that message to be lost on our guys,” Mericier says, “we want to win the game, of course; play hard, treat it like any other game, but they also have to enjoy the experience and understand the importance of what we are doing here.”
Saints GM and Head Coach Jason McKee echoes the sentiment.
“Obviously, this opportunity to give back is big for our franchise and the league, and I think it’s not just an opportunity to grow the AJHL brand, it’s a chance to help out a community.”
McKee, the “home” coach for this game says his team will approach this game with “road” routine.
“We’ve played games in Stony Plain before, that were key games, so we’ve been there before, but to keep it consistent, we’ll approach it like any other road game,” says McKee.
“Having said that, we have to understand what an outstanding opportunity this is for our players and organization, to give back.”
Slave Lake Minor Hockey President Owen Gourley believes this is a unique opportunity for the organization.
“We are very thankful that the AJHL is doing this for us. It means a lot to the kids and our community as it is a very unique experience that we wouldn’t otherwise have. We are very excited about the game.”
“For several years, the Spruce Grove Saints have committed to bringing AJHL hockey into new communities, but this night will be extremely special,” said AJHL President Craig T. Cripps.
“I am proud that the AJHL, Saints and Pontiacs can work together to assist a community and make a financial donation to minor hockey,” he said.
“The residents of Slave Lake have suffered many losses, and we believe this is our way to help young athletes and families.”
The game will take place at 7 p.m. at the Arctic Ice Centre.
– With files from AJHL.ca
By FRED RINNE