BCHL games in Alberta now underway after five teams join league

The first game for the Spruce Grove Saints and Sherwood Park Crusaders in the BCHL took place Friday. Global News

Edmonton area hockey fans are happy to have their team back on the ice, after a shakeup to the AJHL. Five teams from Alberta’s league have now officially joined the BCHL.

Friday night was the first time four of the five teams were in action, including the Spruce Grove Saints and the Sherwood Park Crusaders.

The game was just announced Thursday afternoon, but the stands at Grant Fuhr Arena in Spruce Grove were filled with fans excited to watch an inaugural matchup.

“It was a little weary at first but now that I know what’s going on, I kind of have an idea what’s happening and I think it’s great for them,” said season ticket holder Evan Batke.

Both teams were looking to be the first to win a game in the Alberta division of the BC Junior Hockey League.  That division includes the Saints, Crusaders, Blackfalds Bulldogs, Brooks Bandits and Okotoks Oilers.

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The game comes after weeks of back and forth between the AJHL, the BCHL and the five teams who left. They cited various reasons, including better development and opportunities.

“For a lot of them this will be their last year, we thought that they would be done now because of what happened between the two leagues,” said fan Keith Espetveid.

Click to play video: 'AJHL seeks clarification over reports of clubs joining BCHL'
AJHL seeks clarification over reports of clubs joining BCHL

Originally after some speculation, the BCHL issued a statement on Jan. 20 that it had come to terms with the five teams.

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What followed was a quick response by the AJHL, which all but exiled the five teams by cutting off access to the rest of the league and cancelling their games. The AJHL said the five teams were free to play games, but only against each other and not against the league’s remaining 11 teams.

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When games were cancelled, fans were unsure what their team’s future may look like.

“We were sad. We were afraid we were going to lose the team and not have hockey here anymore. They’ve always done well here and have a lot of good support,” said fan Shirley Galliford.

Click to play video: 'Sherwood Park Crusaders say it hasn’t committed to leaving AJHL even as league cancels games'
Sherwood Park Crusaders say it hasn’t committed to leaving AJHL even as league cancels games

On Thursday it was officially announced by the BCHL that effective immediately the teams would join the league, faster than both the teams and the league predicted.

“We knew we had to react when the players, the athletes, came under the microscope and had their games cancelled. We knew we had to step in and say this isn’t right. We knew the only decision was to bring them under our umbrella now,” said BCHL Commissioner Steven Cocker.

Now the five Alberta teams will play each other for the rest of the season, before taking on the BC Division playoff champion.

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Season ticket holders tell Global News they can’t wait to see what’s in store for their team.

“I’m glad to be back. I’m so happy to be back sitting in my seat, it’s great. Now there’s actually different competition and give the players better exposure,” said Batke.

The City of Spruce Grove is also embracing the new league and is excited to keep the team in the city.

“The team’s been here for 20 years, this is our 20th anniversary and I was here on day one. I’m a loyal fan and there’s lots of people who support the team and the community. It really speaks to the community spirit and pride for Spruce Grove,” said City Councillor Stuart Houston.

“It’s about hockey development and this will be a really good brand of hockey. We’re excited to see that come to our city and we’re supportive.”

Click to play video: '5 teams from Alberta Junior Hockey League to join B.C. Hockey League'
5 teams from Alberta Junior Hockey League to join B.C. Hockey League

Friday night the Saints beat the Crusaders 5-3. The Blackfalds Bulldogs faced off against Okotoks Oilers and the Bulldogs won 4-3.

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The Brooks Bandits will play its first BCHL game Sunday against the Bulldogs. The full schedule is available on the league’s website.

— With files from Global News’ Doyle Potenteau

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