October 26th, 2020

Academy joins AAA league

By Medicine Hat News on May 19, 2020.

ALTA NEWSPAPER GROUP PHOTO JUSTIN SEWARD Unidentified players from the Willie Desjardins South Alberta Hockey Academy take part in a 3-on-3 tournament in Irvine Dec. 18, 2018.

Top-tier minor hockey in the Medicine Hat area got a huge boost Saturday when Willie Desjardins’ South Alberta Hockey Academy announced it will ice two under-18 teams this fall in a AAA-level league.

Both a boys and a girls under-18 team will play in the Canadian Sports School Hockey League, with all players attending Eagle Butte High School in Dunmore. Medicine Hat’s Family Leisure Centre will be the on-ice base for the squads.

“It’s exciting, it really is,” said SAHA general manager Darren MacMillan, noting he’s been working on the plan since the academy was launched in 2018.

MacMillan said an opportunity to join the CSSHL came up about six months ago, when Banff Hockey Academy – a founding member of the CSSHL 11 years ago – expressed interest in getting rid of its AAA teams.

While the official press release from Prairie Rose School Division refers to the situation as a relocation for Banff’s squads, the CSSHL didn’t want to have more teams in the province. Banff players can certainly apply to be accepted for SAHA’s teams, but MacMillan noted they don’t automatically get spots.

“We’ll try to accommodate kids that were there last year that are interested this year, if they’re a fit for our program for sure,” he said, adding he expects more than half the boys’ roster to be local. “But we don’t have to take what they had, we’re able to make our new team from scratch.”

Medicine Hat hasn’t had an under-18 (formerly midget) AAA-level team since 2017, when the South East Athletic Club Tigers played in the Alberta Midget Hockey League. The city last had a midget AAA female team based here in 2011-12, though the team later ran out of Vauxhall.

This past season the closest thing to a female AAA team in the area was the Southern Express, which played midget elite which is below the AAA level in Alberta. That team played four regular season games in the Hat, plus one in playoffs, but it wasn’t based in the city.

As for male under-18, some players have gone to Lethbridge in recent years but the local midget AA squad is the closest Gas City boys have had to AAA in that age group.

“We are excited for what lies ahead with the South Alberta Hockey Academy,” said Kevin Goodwin, chief operating officer of the CSSHL, in the release. “The southeast corner of Alberta is a good fit for our league and will assist linking existing programs in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. We are appreciative for all the great memories the Banff Hockey Academy has provided the CSSHL since 2009.”

The big hurdle now is to figure out what 40 players will make the teams. With no ice time available in Medicine Hat until at least late August due to the pandemic, evaluations will lean heavily on what coaches already know of the applicants and what they’re able to glean from interviews.

“We’re just going to do our best,” said MacMillan. “I’ve been fielding a lot of calls and emails form parents.

“We also have a lot of kids that we’re interested in, and we’ll get together as a staff, go through it all and basically hand-select the 20 guys and girls we want on our team.”

Coaching the boys team will be Desjardins’ son Brayden, who coached the SEAC bantam AAA’s this past season. Evan Vossen, formerly the boys coach in Banff, will coach the girls team.

Ultimately, the result should be better hockey in the region as a whole.

“I think that’s Willie’s goal,” said MacMillan. “He’s a builder, he wants to build and develop as much as he can. He liked the academy model, you often hear him talking about it when he went over to spend time in Europe.

“So that’s our hope, keep doing what we can for the game, and for kids.”

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