The decision to fold Lac La Biche's U18 minor hockey team sucks, says Lac La Biche Minor Hockey President Trevor Cardinal.
He knows it does.
The U18 Lac La Biche Clippers team didn't have enough registered players by the end of August to start the 2023-24 season, so the tough decision was made to drop from the Northeast Alberta Hockey League (NEAHL).
"It sucks," said Cardinal, explaining that everything the volunteer board members of the association could do to keep the team going was tried.
For Cardinal, that 'everything' involved posts on an association social media page, word of mouth and posters around Lac La Biche Bold Center, the home of the minor hockey league Clippers and speaking with local associations such as Boyle, Plamondon and Athabasca.
Other team levels in the association are seeing reduced numbers of players — but have enough to play.
Could more have been done to round up more players for the U18 and other short-benched teams this year? Could more players and families have been found from better promotion or advertising, or a more hands-on response? Sure, all that and more could have been done — but all things come with a cost, and when it comes to money and time, the volunteer hockey association has a precious balance of both.
"Advertising isn’t free and with low numbers that’s less resources to work with," said Cardinal, who recognizes the shortfalls, feels bad more couldn't be done ... but is also dealing with low participation on his hockey board as well.
"We've got low numbers on the board too," he said, referencing several open spaces on the Lac La Biche Minor Hockey Association's board of directors, and on the association's volunteer callout list.
Overall, said the association president, keeping a minor hockey association vibrant is a struggle on many fronts. The travel associated to hockey and the COVID 19 virus has contributed to the decrease. Many parents were able to get their weekends back and their children haven’t returned.
For the current parents, volunteers, coaches, staff and association members working to keep things on track, Cardinal is truly grateful. He said the work and dedication that takes place in the minor hockey world is often done behind the scenes and without a lot of credit. The loss of the U18 team isn't a reflection on the people who are part of the process, he stresses — it's a reflection of those who aren't.
"If we had more people, could we have drawn more players? Could we have more teams across all age levels? I'd like to say yes — but honestly, with all the moving pieces that we have to deal with, it's really hard to predict," he said. "Players move around, they have school work, they get interested in other activities or sports, or work. There's lots of commitments that kids at these ages have to deal with as well. But do I wish we could have got that U18 team together? Absolutely."
Cardinal says U18 minor hockey teams over the decades have served as a great feeder system to other teams in Junior A and Junior B leagues, and collegiate teams like the hometown Portage College Voyageurs. Losing that link this year — and maybe again next year depending on the number of skaters coming up from the U15 level — is a big hit to those programs as well.
"We know the kids want to play, and we know that some of them go on to play at these other levels — so it's tough to be the ones making the call to fold the team," he said, adding that the association feels badly for the skaters who have played for years and were looking forward to finishing their minor hockey careers with the Clippers. "We've got a lot of talent in our community, a lot of heart, and I hope those skaters continue to build those talents with whatever comes next."
Players and families affected by the team's folding say several members of last year's roster — a full squad of 15 skaters and two goalies — opted to play in other communities or at other levels. A few of last year's Clippers' team also graduated from the minor hockey program. The total number of skaters not returning to U18 play in addition to new skaters coming up from the U15 level only added up to eight skaters and one goalie.
In neighbouring Plamondon the Cougars U18 team has a full roster, with team manager Sarah Doody saying some families of players from the U18 Clippers had contacted her to see about playing.
Lac La Biche Minor Hockey Association officials did send out contact details for U18 teams across the region to the families of the players affected by the decision to fold the team.
Exhibition games in the minor hockey league start next week. Times and locations of Lac La Biche Minor Hockey Clippers teams can be found at the NEAHL website.
More information about joining the Lac La Biche Minor Hockey Association can be found at the group's website. Cardinal said anyone interested is welcome to contact board members at any time.