All but one of Slave Lake’s minor hockey teams will be playing in a new league this season. With the demise of the Northern Alberta Interlock League (NAIL), over the off-season, the various associations had to get together and decide what comes next.
The answer is to join up with the well-established North Eastern Alberta Hockey League, or NEAHL.
According to Slave Lake Minor Hockey Association (SLMHA) President Chris Taylor, the NEAHL is – along with the All-Peace League – one of the stronger and longest-running leagues in the province. Negotiations ensued, and the result is the NEAHL is welcoming most (maybe even all) of the associations that used to make up the NAIL.
Not only that, the new league has created a division just for the former NAIL teams. Called the West Pembina Division, it will result in Slave Lake teams playing most of the same teams they are used to – Edson, Hinton, Whitecourt, etc. Most people attending games probably won’t notice any difference at all.
Except there will be a few games against non-division teams.
“You’ll see the odd team cross over,” says Taylor. “Two or three times a year.”
What happened with the NAIL we’re not exactly sure, but Taylor said it had to do with “organizational concerns.”
The only Slave Lake team not affected by the league change is the female U15/18 Thunder, which will continue to play in the All Peace Hockey League. Last year, this was made up of five teams – one each from Slave Lake, Beaverlodge, Grande Prairie, Dawson Creek and Grimshaw.
Meanwhile, registered SLMHA players have been doing prep skates and scrimmages for a couple of weeks. A two-week evaluation period started this week, with two sessions per week. Taylor says at the end of that process, the players will be assigned to different teams within their age group. Not counting the U18 team, which only has enough players for one squad.
Taylor provides the numbers: The way things are looking, there will be four U9 teams, three U11 teams, two U13 teams and two U15 teams. Something else new this year is that one of the U15 teams will play in a non-hitting league. This was considered last season as well, Taylor says, “but there wasn’t much uptake.” This year, evidently, there is. Taylor says it’s a type of hockey that can work well for players just getting into hockey, of which there are a few.
One thing making that route more attractive this season, Taylor says, is Hockey Alberta has added a provincial championship to the picture for the non-hitting league.
Fans of local hockey will likely notice some missing faces on the older age group teams. Damian Hill, for example, who led the NAIL U15 Tier 1-2 league in scoring last year, is trying out for an AAA team in Red Deer this season. That was after an invitation to a Lethbridge Hurricanes camp, which was “a really good experience,” says his father Dwain. Then he tried out for a Red Deer AAA U18 team, and was one of later cuts. A U17 AAA team is next.
Hill’s high-scoring teammate Grayson Conrad is trying out for a Grande Prairie AAA team. Jonas Lillo will likely end up on a team in Grande Prairie or Whitecourt.
Three other U15 players are trying out for the Whitecourt AA team – Connor Beauchamp, Nathan Ghostkeeper and Dawson Taylor.
So…a few kids leaving, but lots more coming up to replace them. Taylor says registration is pretty good this year, especially in the younger age groups.
“The future of hockey is looking pretty good, at least for now,” he says.
Finally, minor hockey could always use more on-ice officials, Taylor says. To that end, SLMHA is holding a refereeing clinic on Sept. 23. Age 16 and over can be Level II officials, he says; younger than that – Level I.
Taylor himself recently passed a course qualifying him to train on-ice officials. Tracey Scott is still the primary instructor, he says, but as he gets closer to hanging up his referee’s skates, he’s happy to have another way of “giving back.”
“We’ll teach you everything you need to know,” he says.
Regular season schedules for minor hockey have not been released yet. But if it follows the usual pattern, games for the older age groups will probably start in the first week of October.