It’s the last weekend of AJHL hockey before the Christmas break and it begins with a focus on one of the biggest stages in Edmonton. On Friday night, the Spruce Grove Saints (23-6-3) will host the Okotoks Oilers (26-5-1) in a charity game at Northlands Coliseum – the last ever competitive hockey game played in the former home of the Edmonton Oilers. The game also serves as a rematch of two of the league’s top teams from last weekend, which was a decisive 4-1 score in favour of Okotoks. The loss would be the Saints’ second in a row, as they were able to pick up just a single point out of a possible four in a southern road trip. At the other end of the rink, Okotoks comes into the game on a two game win streak. Entrance into the game is free.
After they give fans in Edmonton a local team to cheer on one last time at Northlands, the Saints’ weekend doesn’t get any easier as they head out on the road to play the Whitecourt Wolverines (22-7-4) for the sixth and final time this regular season. While the Saints/Wolverines matchups have been exciting on the ice for the last few seasons, Saturday’s game in Whitecourt is also of significance off the ice as the Wolverines will honour brothers Ryder and Radek MacDougall, the step children of Wolverines owner Brent Stark, before the game. The one year anniversary of their tragic deaths in Spruce Grove will be an opportunity for a wonderful celebration of their lives and will make for a truly special night all around. While the special game will is the only scheduled matchup of the weekend for Whitecourt, the Saints' Friday opponent in Okotoks will be taking on the Drayton Valley Thunder (8-26-0) in their lone game of the weekend. The Thunder will be going for their second win in a row.
Staying in the AJHL North, the three teams with the busiest schedules this weekend will all be making three game road trips down south. The Bonnyville Pontiacs (11-15-7) start it off on Friday against the Brooks Bandits (22-10-1) who seem to have finally found their stride during a recent six game winning streak. From Brooks, the ‘Yaks put some more miles on the bus for a stay in Calgary to take on the Canucks (14-18-1) on Saturday and the Mustangs (16-17-2) on Sunday. Both teams are hovering around the .500 mark in their last ten, while Bonnyville looks to disrupt the south division logjam with a pair of wins. Like Bonnyville, the Grande Prairie Storm (16-12-3) have their own three game expedition to the AJHL South to look forward to, starting in the mountains. In Canmore, you can’t beat the view and you’ll also have a tough time beating the Eagles (14-17-2) who own a solid home record of 9-6. Canmore has spent most of the first half of their season on the road, and some home games during the holidays could provide them a solid bump towards a home ice advantage once the playoffs begin in March. From Canmore, the Storm will roll into the Badlands on Saturday to tangle with the Drumheller Dragons (17-14-2) before closing out the weekend against the Camrose Kodiaks (11-15-7) on Sunday. No team personifies how tight the south division is quite like the Kodiaks: they’re seven points out of 3rd but also just two points up on 8th (and last) place Olds.
Rounding out the busy road trip schedule are the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (24-4-2) who, stop me if you’ve heard this already, play three games in the south division this weekend. Like Bonnyville, the MOB will be taking on both Calgary teams starting with the Mustangs on Friday before closing out their road trip against the Canucks on Sunday. The delectable bologna in Fort McMurray’s road trip sandwich is represented by a game against the Brooks Bandits on Saturday night which is sure to be a display of two of the league’s top teams. Combining each team’s last ten games, Brooks and Fort McMurray are 15-4-1. Both teams also enter the weekend with six straight wins, and if they both win on Friday an eight game win streak will be on the line at the Centennial Regional Arena.
The weekend overall appears to be defined by interdivisional matchups, with the Olds Grizzlys (13-20-1) welcoming the Lloydminster Bobcats (11-20-2) on Friday and the Sherwood Park Crusaders (14-16-2) on Saturday. The Bobcats and the Grizzlys may be respectively near or at the bottom of their respective divisions, but both have shown stretches of consistency and both have plenty to play for in terms of positional standings. Before entering the bear’s den in Olds, the Crusaders will be in Drumheller on Friday night.
-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom