It's only the start of another great season of AJHL hockey, but one of its most important dates on the calendar comes up this weekend in Spruce Grove.
It’s the annual Showcase Weekend where all of the league's teams gather for a jamboree-like tournament – but the games do count in the standings, and to add a little spice and perhaps a tad of positive pressure, the Tri-Leisure Centre will be littered with scouts from all over the hockey world.
The event is an essential piece of any Junior A schedule; it's the sixth year for the AJHL, which was designed from its outset to, well, showcase, the talent available in the AJHL loop.
With the vast geographical area the league encompasses, it was often tough to ensure scouts from pro hockey and the collegiate levels could travel to, and see all of the fine calibre talent in a busy puck season.
The solution to that, of course, was the idea to bring all of the league's teams and players to one centrally- accessible location so scouts could make one trip and get the full menu over a weekend.
And that tactic has obviously worked.
Since its’ inception, 12 players have been selected directly from the AJHL in the NHL Entry Draft including the only two first round selections in AJHL history.
The event has also resulted in more than 400 college and university commitments for league players.
“This event is all about exposure and opportunity,” says the AJHL's VP of Marketing Ryan Bartoshyk.
“It emphasizes the AJHL's commitment to development, profiles our athletes and showcases them to all future options and routes.
Spruce Grove has become a comfortable, natural and well-oiled machine to host the event.
The Showcase Weekend has become a big event on the local calendar, and hometown Saints’ Coach and GM Jason McKee agrees, for his club, it's not just about the hockey extravaganza, but about the community and celebrating support and volunteerism needed to be a successful host and ultimately franchise and a league.
“The Saints are proud to host the AJHL Showcase in Spruce Grove. It allows all 15 other organizations, fans, and sponsors to be a part of a special event for everyone involved,” says McKee.
“Spruce Grove has embraced the showcase and been fortunate enough to host the event for a number of years. It’s not only a showcase for the players but an opportunity to show all of the hockey world what a great community we have outside of hockey as well.”
Long-time bench boss, one of the AJ's most successful, Boris Rybalka of the Camrose Kodiaks says the concept really helps to promote the entire league, all of its member teams, and of course the players.
“For the Camrose Kodiaks, the AJHL Showcase is a great event that not only gives the players a golden opportunity to let scouts see what they are all about but also gives the AJHL the opportunity to show what great Junior A hockey is in Alberta,” says Rybalka.
“Every game is business as usual and the players know that because we are preparing them for life ahead. They know it is a big weekend and they will get an opportunity to display their talent and ability at the Showcase. With the amount of scouts that will be on hand, it is a great way to see how players deal with pressure and adversity.”
And that's the added bonus of a successful Showcase. It reminds the players that while hockey is important, preparing for life and using their talents to access quality post-secondary educational opportunities is really what it's all about.
Action gets underway Thursday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. when Olds and Drayton Valley square off, and culminates Saturday at 8:30 p.m. when the host Saints take on the league's newest franchise – Whitecourt Woverines.
Sixteen contests will be played in all, every team hitting the ice twice.
For more information and full schedule see https://ajhl.ca/schedule/schedule__results.html.