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Dissolution of Northern Alberta Interlock won’t negatively impact Athabasca-area hockey players

Athabasca set to join the North Eastern Alberta Hockey League
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Members of the Athabasca U18 hockey team line up on home ice for the national anthem April 2 before the gold-medal game against the La Crete Lumberjacks during 2023 provincials, which La Crete won 5-2. Photo by Cole Brennan/AA

ATHABASCA – Despite the recent dissolution of the Northern Alberta Interlock (NAI) League, which facilitated play between 24 member associations across the north part of the province, Athabasca and surrounding area minor hockey players, parents and coaches shouldn’t see any major changes when the season starts this fall. 

News of the dissolution came via an Aug. 9 press release after NAI member associations put the fate of the league to a vote Aug. 2. This followed the resignation of the entire executive board July 12. 

Member associations had the options to designate a new executive board themselves, allow Hockey Alberta to delegate a temporary board, or move into the new season without the NAI.  

Hockey Alberta’s manager of minor hockey Bryden Burrell said while there may have some handwringing following the announcement, they’ll make sure everyone has a place to play. 

“For some, there was definitely some panic not knowing what league they could be participating in, or if they would have a league going into this upcoming hockey season,” said Burrell Aug. 10. “But we will make sure that they are in a league going forward.”  

Athabasca and District Minor Hockey Association (ADMHA) president Evan Wagner said that although the decision by member associations wasn’t unanimous, the consensus was it would be the best option for the “overwhelming majority” moving forward.  

“Finding a new executive to carry on running a league when you don’t have people that are experienced in that might present a number of challenges and not make for a very smooth transition,” said Wagner Aug. 17. “We thought with other leagues open to having former NAI members join them in an established league, that would be a smoother transition.”  

Tyler Batdorf and Nelson Jespersen, the respective presidents of the Barrhead Minor Hockey Association (BMHA) and Westlock and District Minor Hockey Association (WDMHA), both echoed Wagner’s sentiment, and cited the importance of keeping as many of the former NAI associations as possible together.  

“We all just have to stick together and make the best of what we have, and I think overall we’re very optimistic,” added Jespersen. 

ADMHA, BMHA and WDMHA have all received verbal acceptance to join the North Eastern Alberta Hockey League (NEAHL), but are still awaiting formal approval, which associations expect to be finalized by the end of August. 

Burrell noted most of the NAI members shared Batdorf and Jespersen’s view, and sought acceptance into the NEAHL, an outcome Burrell said the league expected. 

When the NAI executive resignation was announced in July, Burrell said leagues like the NEAHL commenced internal discussions on how to respond.  

“They’ve held a vote with their existing members that were already part of the league on the acceptance of the vast majority of associations that were part of the NAI, and they’ve already had that approval,” said Burrell. “Now it’s just really the formality of getting those associations (inducted) as part of the league.” 

Travel a major factor 

Cody Siemens, president of Thorhild Minor Hockey and a member of the new NAI executive in charge of overseeing the dissolution, noted that since his start with the league approximately six years ago, he’s seen “a slow erosion” of associations. 

“With the direction our league has gone, especially over the last few years with associations leaving, they struggled to create a system that was good for everyone due to our geography,” Siemens said, adding he has seen at least three member associations depart during his time with NAI. 

“As teams leave, it just creates less and less competition, (which means) more and more travel.” 

Wagner added, “Travel is always a concern and it always has been a concern for all the minor hockey leagues in northern Alberta because, for the most part, towns aren’t all that close to each other.” 

NAI member associations ranged from Fort McMurray to Winfield, a distance of 561 kilometres, and as far west as Smoky Lake across to Jasper, which clocks in at a 474-kilometre trip.  

The transition to the NEAHL will help ease the burden of travel in Athabasca, as many communities in the surrounding area are already members of the league.  

“We would have access to play Boyle, for example, or Plamondon or Lac La Biche. They’re all an hour or less travel time away, which is honestly closer than many of the teams that we were playing in the NAI,” said Wagner, adding the availability of different age groups and skill levels will dictate which communities will face off on the ice.  

Batdorf and Jespersen noted travel burdens weren’t major issues for Barrhead and Westlock, the more central associations in the league, but echoed the importance of keeping everyone’s priorities in mind.  

“For us specifically, it opens up a lot more possibilities — there’s a lot more communities that are closer to (Thorhild); instead of being right on that edge of the NAI, were now central to what this new area would be,” said Siemens. 

Both Burrell and the Aug. 9 press release noted the possible creation of a western division within the NEAHL to ensure travel demands don’t exceed reasonable distances, and Jespersen cited the possibility of hosting neutral-site league tournaments in Westlock, where teams can knock multiple league games out in one weekend as a way to further reduce travel.  

“You shouldn’t have to see Hinton, Edson, or Jasper travel all the way to the eastern side of Alberta to play a hockey game, as that would be considered unreasonable,” said Burrell.  

Surprising, but not unexpected 

Siemens said the decision to join the NEAHL might not resonate with everyone, but evolution is necessary — and inevitable.  

“My belief is there weren’t any real viable options. Even if we kept the NAI together, we would still be dealing with teams leaving — there were teams applying to leave as early as this year. I didn’t think keeping the NAI together was going to stop that; you can’t force commitments from associations,” Siemens added. 

Even if some have their doubts, Wagner, Batdorf, Siemens and Jespersen all said the changes haven’t affected registration numbers and despite initial concerns, little to no negative feedback has been received. 

“Everyone involved in this process … has been dedicated to ensure that all kids that want to play hockey have a place to play hockey and have a place to have meaningful competition against other teams,” said Wagner. “We’ve worked well together overall through this process and I’m optimistic for how this is going to play out for this season and into the future.” 

Siemens and the presidents from other NAI member associations agreed that despite the end of the Interlock league, the future for their associations and rural minor hockey is bright.  

“We’re hearing some really good things coming out of the (NEAHL), it’s a well-run league with experienced executives, and they’re saying all the right things,” said Jespersen.  

“I do believe this was a necessary step … especially for rural hockey north of Edmonton,” said Siemens. “Me coming in new, I don’t have the history, all I can look for is how best to move forward.”  

Lexi Freehill, TownandCountryToday.com