The road to college hockey

Trojans rookie Zach McNeill played two and a half seasons in the AJHL before coming to play this season with SAIT. (Photo by Billie Barrett)

Trojans rookie Zach McNeill played two and a half seasons in the AJHL before coming to play this season with SAIT. (Photo by Billie Barrett)

Junior A hockey is a popular and worthwhile path for young players to choose in their hockey journeys.

Many hockey players are choosing to play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) to develop their skills and to be scouted by different post-secondary schools from Canada and the USA, including SAIT.

Dan Olsen, now head coach of the Trojans’ hockey team, spent three years as the head coach of the Crowsnest Pass Timberwolves, an AJHL team that would eventually be relocated to Okotoks.

“There are some good scholarships available,” said Olsen.

The Friends of Alberta Junior Hockey Society provides multiple scholarships to the players in the AJHL, ranging from $1,500 to $2,000.

“If you put your time in there, you can put your name in for some scholarship opportunities.”

Olsen said that the players join the AJHL around the ages of 16 to 18 and they end up playing against 20 year olds, which forces them to improve their game.

“Most of the coaches up there are high performance.”

Coming up from midget, players will have a lot more practice time, which in turn will help with their development, said Olsen.

The AJHL does just as much to develop players off the ice as it does to help them on the ice.

The league gives some young athletes a chance to live and play away from home, as they play for teams such as the Brooks Bandits or Fort McMurray Oil Barons.

For many of the players, it’s their first time leaving home and having to live with a billet family, a family one stays with when away from home. They get to experience playing in a market that could potentially draw in 800 or more fans per game.

“I think it helps them grow, as far as men.”

Due to cuts in scholarship funding, the Trojans are finding themselves looking more at the Junior A teams in Alberta.

“The Alberta junior league has really good players,” said Olsen.

The Calgary Canucks and The Calgary Mustangs, two AJHL teams based in the same city as SAIT, makes it easy for the Trojans to scout for new recruits.

“We can just go right over to Father Bauer or Max Bell [arenas] and watch all the teams in the league,” said Olsen.

The transition from the AJHL to college hockey is not always easy for the players, some of which haven’t been in school for two or three years.

Olsen said it would be beneficial for the players if the AJHL would provide information sessions or time management classes.

“Some guys are mature and responsible enough, they’ll take some college classes, but a lot of them just want to play hockey and try and get a scholarship,” said Olsen.

Not only has the AJHL drawn attention from post-secondary leagues, but also from the NHL.

The most notable player was Cale Makar, who ended up being drafted fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche.

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