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BCHL expands mid-season as five AJHL teams officially make jump

Brooks Bandits, Blackfalds Bulldogs, Okotoks Oilers, Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints officially joined BCHL on Thursday

In late mid-season, and almost overnight, the B.C. Hockey League has added a division and gone from 17 teams to 22.

The renegade five from the Alberta Junior Hockey League —Brooks Bandits, Blackfalds Bulldogs, Okotoks Oilers, Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints — officially joined the BCHL on Thursday.

The five Alberta clubs will play among themselves in a BCHL division to close out the season, with the playoff winner of the Alberta group advancing to meet the playoff champion of the existing BCHL teams in a league final.

“We are pleased to officially welcome these five franchises into the fold as members of our league,” BCHL CEO Chris Hebb said in a statement.

“All five are strong organizations from great communities and we look forward to the immediate boost they will give our league. We were encouraged by their belief in our model and think that adding these teams will strengthen the development of all our players.”

The Alberta five were considered the strongest franchises in the AJHL.

The prize catch for the BCHL is the Brooks team, with the Bandits the defending and four-time Canadian Junior A champions since 2013 and who produced NHL star defenceman Cale Makar.

The BCHL announced on Jan. 20 the five AJHL teams would join the BCHL, but no timelime was given at that point. The AJHL responded by allowing scheduled games between the five teams to proceed, but cancelled all games they had against the other 11 teams in the league pending clarification of the situation.

On Thursday, the AJHL said it was “disappointed but not surprised that the five defecting clubs now intend to drop out of the AJHL” and thanked its 11 remaining teams.

“With the unfortunate situation the [five] Alberta teams have faced in recent weeks with having games cancelled in their previous league [AJHL], it was imperative to us to get these players back on the ice in meaningful competition,” BCHL commissioner Steven Cocker said in a statement.

“This five-team schedule and post-season will give these athletes the chance to get in a full set of games for the remainder of the year, which is the most important thing to us.”

It is another blow for Hockey Canada, which lost the BCHL when the league went independent this season with the main issue being player recruitment rules that differed dramatically between Junior A and major-junior hockey.

The Island teams in the BCHL are the Victoria Grizzlies, Cowichan Valley Capitals, Nanaimo Clippers and Alberni Valley Bulldogs.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com