LAC LA BICHE - Lac La Biche's Junior B hockey team has folded and won't be playing any more games in the 2021-22 season — but the Clippers are hoping to set sail again next season.
The team is taking what club officials are calling "a leave of absence" for the remainder of this season.
Blaming a lack of players to fill the bench, team officials made the decision on New Year's Eve. With a dozen matches left in their Alberta Junior B Hockey League regular season schedule, it was decided the new year wouldn't bring any new changes to the squad that has been struggling to keep players on its roster since the start of the season.
The decline in bench numbers began at the same time as the global COVID pandemic.
The 2019-20 season was cut short just as the team began league championships, that disappointment was followed by another season where only one game was played before pandemic sanctions shut down the league. That kind of interruption makes recruiting players a big challenge, says team manager Ali Fyith.
"It was a very tough decision, but we had to do it — a lot of potential kids just found something else to do, and hockey wasn't it anymore," said Fyith. "We just don't have the players, the commitment."
Team officials don't blame their players for running out of steam. After a full season away from league play, he said it was a big challenge to just fill the roster at the start of the season last September. Since then, the challenge has continued for players and staff.
"We've been scouring the province looking for backups to play," Fyith said, understanding the difficulties for out-of-area recruits during an unprecedented health pandemic. "Some have moved back to their hometowns, their families — there can be so many factors when you bring out of town players ... especially with all that COVID is doing."
Admitting that the team could have continued with a skeleton bench that would have put the remaining players "on their last legs," Fyith said the plan instead is to re-group and build on what they had.
"We want to pick up the pieces and build on what we have started," he said, explaining that part of that look-ahead view is expected to zoom in on more local talent.
Fyith says the Clippers only had one midget-aged player from the local minor hockey league as an affiliate this year, along with a handful of local skaters under the age of 20.
"We're hoping to really beat the bushes locally this spring and summer to get that local talent playing on the local team," he said, explaining that the goal of the junior B franchise continues to be as a stepping stone for young talent to continue their playing time. "We will be back next year. It's such a good thing to have a team at this level that young skaters can aspire to."
The Clippers returned to the region's junior B league in 2017 after a 15-year absence. The Clippers lost in the finals of the league championships in 2019, and were the top team in the league going into the 2020 championship finals in 2020 before the pandemic shut down hockey.
League officials have quickly adapted the last six weeks of regular season play in the NEAJHL. The Clippers' departure leaves the league with six active teams. Before the COVID pandemic struck, the 2018-19 NEAJHL season had nine teams competing. Since the pandemic, the Clippers join the Frog Lake T-Birds and the Vegreville Rustlers in dropping from the league.
Several players on the Clippers roster did find new homes on area teams, with the Cold Lake ice taking several players.
The Clippers left the league midway through one of their toughest seasons, with a record of just six wins in 22 games and sitting in sixth place just six points ahead of the last place Lloydminster Bandits.
The Clippers were scheduled to play their regional rivals, the St. Paul Canadiens over the Jan. 7 weekend in their first game back from the holiday break. The Canadiens are currently in third place in the league, just one point behind the Killam Wheat Kings and six points back of the league-leading Wainwright Bisons
League playoffs are expected to begin in mid February.
Clippers officials say they have offered spots back to any players from this year's roster who would like to play next season. Training camps are expected to take place in the coming months.