North Eastern Alberta Jr. B League discussing changes to avoid players leaving for WPHA, says President

Image courtesy of the NEAJBHL website.

The deadline for Junior B teams to make the adjustments to their roster could be moving later into the season, said North Eastern Alberta Junior B Hockey League President, Mark Woytkiw.

The move is in response to Junior B teams signing with teams in the WPHA, the expansion hockey league based from the United States. The league currently has four teams in Canada: Cold Lake, Meadow Lake, Hinton, and Edson.

“Right now the best thing we’re exploring is having discussions with the chair of Junior Council and Hockey Alberta to see going forward is look at those dates and change them to be more beneficial to us moving forward so things like this happen in the future,” said Mark Woytkiw.

Tobie Opikokew, Peter Willier, Darwin Morin, Carson Bear, Calem McNabb, and Tylin Cameron began the season with the Frog Lake T-Birds and Lac la Biche Clippers in the NEAJBHL clubs.

But all, expect Cameron, left after the Junior B’s roster cutoff date passed on Jan. 10. These players are then suspended by Hockey Alberta and Hockey Canada for the remainder of the season for playing in a non-sanctioned league, said Wotykiw.

“We were trying to be as proactive with our teams in discussions with their players and explaining to them to do your homework first about buying into a pay-to-play program and things like this…they’ve tried to poach kids from every team in the league. In discussions with teams about it, some teams were more proactive than others in explaining that to them,” said Woytkiw.

“At the end of the day, we’re looking at different options. Whether it’s lowering our age limit to 20-year-olds, because each team is allowed four 21-year-olds, and that could give them more room to have some more 20-year-olds, but that remains to be seen. We’re all doing all that we can, but unfortunately, not a lot is going to take effect until next season. And that’s the biggest thing is getting these guys to be proactive,” he said.

“We need to be a little more protective and understand that this is not a back-and-forth feeder system for their league versus our league.”

Frog Lake T-Birds surviving

The Frog Lake T-Birds have borne the brunt of this player moves, which led to conversations about the team folding. General Manager Wayne Dion says the team will finish the season.

“The league doesn’t want to see another team fold. We lost Onion Lake and the year before we lost Saddle Lake, and now we’re the only Indigenous team out there still in the league. I hate to see it go, but I’m trying my best to keep it going. I told the league I’m not going to fold,” said Wayne Dion, GM of the Frog Lake T-Birds, last week.

This was after five T-Birds players left the team for the Meadow Lake Mustangs and Cold Lake Wings of the WPHA.

Some Junior B clubs feel it’s a double-standard that WPHA can sign players from their teams, but not vice-versa, since they’re automatically suspended by Hockey Alberta for the rest of the year.

“I think the biggest thing is the guidelines we have to follow. That’s the problem people don’t realize is this outlaw league can do whatever they want,” said Cold Lake Ice coach/general manager Scott Hood.

“At the end of the day, my season could be done and ten guys leave and they’re suspended for a year,” he said.

Derek Prue, Western Provinces Hockey Association

“As far as poached, I think that kind of is insinuating that our guys are actively looking for those players which isn’t really the case. I think if there is any communication it’s from players our way,” said Derek Prue who oversees operations and expansion for the WPHA.

He says he thinks Junior B organizations should want guys to move to the next level.

“As a Junior B coach, if I lost some of my guys to Junior A level mid-season I wouldn’t be thrilled about my team, but as a coach and as an organization, don’t you want your players going to the next level?

“Where in this case they’ll actually have a chance to get a scholarship and you’re on the ice every day and you’re getting that next level of development. I thought that’s what this was all about. I find that kind of sad that that would even be an issue for them,” said Prue.

The WPHA has announced further expansion for the 2019-20 hockey season.

Jasper, and as of today, Slave Lake, have been granted conditional acceptance into the WPHA for next season.

“Junior A, you’re on the ice every day. You’re not working part-time a job. They can say what they want those guys, but guys every year get scholarships to play college hockey, and I don’t see that happening at the Junior B level, that to me is the biggest smell-test,” said Prue.

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