BARRHEAD – The Barrhead Bombers organization is preparing to compete in another season in the Canadian-American Junior Hockey League (CAJHL).
The junior hockey team is entering its second or third season in Barrhead, depending on how you count it.
The team first came to town for the 2019-2020 season as part of the Western States Hockey League (WSHL), after team owner and league commissioner Ron White relocated his team from Long Beach, California.
Unfortunately, the pandemic cut the season short just before the playoffs.
Due to COVID, the next time the Bombers would take to the ice, it would be for the start of the 2021-2022 season, under new owner Aly Virani, an Edmonton-based property, investment and hospitality entrepreneur. He is also the general manager of Barrhead Inn and Suites.
Less than halfway through the season, the WSHL's Canadian-based teams, along with the Vernal Oilers in Utah, decided to form the previously mentioned CAJHL. At the time, Virani stated that the teams had come to a "crossroad" with the WHSL. Since their departure, the WSHL has become defunct.
"It has been a busy offseason," he said, noting that much of his and other members league's governors' efforts have gone into finding a league commissioner and creating partnerships to help grow the league.
In June, the CAJHL announced that they had signed an affiliation agreement with the Premier Hockey League (PHL), a youth hockey league with upwards of 50 teams in Alberta, B.C. and Montana, ranging from U9 to U18.
"It will allow the (PHL) players to have a natural progression to a junior league, and for us, it gives us a pool of players that we can potentially draft from," Virani said. "One of the things we are doing through the affiliation is creating a feeder system into the league, not only for long-term players but potentially as emergency fill-ins or call-ups in case of injury."
Through discussions with the PHL, he added, the CAJHL was able to find their commissioner Kelly Bruce, who also serves in that role for the PHL.
"When we were doing the affiliation and talking to (Kelly), we realized there were a lot of affinities and synergies between what he is trying to accomplish with the PHL and where we want to go, so we thought he might be a good fit for us as well."
As for what this year will look like, Virani said, for the 2022-2023 season the CAJHL will have six teams: the Calgary AMP Warriors, the Edmonton Eagles, the Cold Lake Aeros, the Hinton Timberwolves and the Vegreville Vipers. Along with Barrhead, they will play between 42 to 46 game in the regular season, including a mini-tournament showcase set for Calgary in late December. The final schedule should be out at the end of the month.
"Some teams are still waiting to find out about ice availabilities in their communities, including ourselves," Virani said.
Virani added the majority of the players in the CAJHL mirror that of other junior leagues, in that their ages range from those whose 16th birthdays are in the current season to 20 years old, except for this season which they have extended the maximum to 21.
"Because of the pandemic and that there are so many players who could not find opportunities to play, we've decided to allow each team to have up to a maximum of three 21-year-olds," he said.
In an interview with the Leader shortly after the formation of the CAJHL, Virani also said they hoped to create a Canadian and U.S. divisions, noting they had received calls of potentially interested teams on both sides of the border.
However, Virani said, they have decided to put a hold on the American division, at least for now.
"One of the challenges is to have enough teams within a reasonable travelling distance to each," he said. "We had some teams near Utah and the Seattle area who were interested, but the distances were not viable for a division. So we decided to build the Canadian-side first and delay expansion to the U.S. until next season, but more likely, the one after that."
Distance is also one of the reasons why the Vernal Oilers, the inaugural CAJHL champions, decided to opt-out of the league. The teams noted that their road trips to play CAJHL teams averaged 32 hours per round trip. The trip from Barrhead to Vernal is 19 hours one-way, not including any potential issues or waits at the border.
"It's an exciting time for us, and there is a lot of interest, but we want to make sure that our growth is sustainable," Virani said.