Slings and Aeros: Jasper’s junior A bid out of the gate

by Craig Gilbert

The Edson Aeros had a simple piece of advice for the Jasper locals hoping to dogfight with them in the Canadian division of the WSHL next season.

“Don’t let the little things get in the way,” Kirk Gilks said at a press conference at the Sawridge Inn Tuesday. “Stay with your big picture. I know it sounds like a cliche, but remember why you’re going into this and stick with that. Build it and they will come, and that’s basically what’s been happening.”

The Western States Hockey League revealed Jan. 29 that Alex Derksen and Justin Melnyk of Jasper Brewing Co., teacher Chuck Barker and railroader Brian Ewald form the potential ownership group of a team that could hit the ice as early as this coming season.

Barker and Melnyk attended the announcement with WSHL commissioner Ron White and Derek Prue, who is overseeing the expansion of the league’s Canadian division, the Western Provinces Hockey Association.

There are teams playing their first season in the league right now in Hinton, Edson, Meadow Lake and Cold Lake. White and Prue travelled to Slave Lake later in the day for a similar announcement. Fort Saskatchewan and Vegreville are “interested as well,” Prue said, as are a “couple of” towns in eastern British Columbia.

“It’s been fun watching the communities come together,” Gilks told Barker and Melnyk after the formalities. “It’s given people something to talk about.”

Barker was heavily involved with the senior A Jasper team before it folded as a player/coach and more. He’s been in dialogue with the league for about a year.

“We’re doing our homework, looking at the feasibility of a team here, and with these two gentlemen, hopefully to establish a team here in the future,” he said.

White travelled from southern California to present to Jasper town councillors, who had questions for him Tuesday morning.

He’ll need their approval sometime in the first half of this year if a team is to indeed play next season; every team needs a lease at a home arena. That’s priority “number one” for the league.

But throwing question marks in the air is the recreation facility and service review the town is undertaking; later on the same agenda for Tuesday’s meeting was a line-by-line review of the framework for the $80,000 consultants study councillors have agreed to put to tender.

The report is supposed to help councillors prioritize what facilities get repairs. At the arena, the ice plant, slab and boards need to be replaced, to name a few things.

Mayor Richard Ireland had concerns about those very boards, which are not cushioned and form the reason the Edmonton Oilers don’t practice or play here anymore. A dedicated dressing room would also be a challenge in an equation where there apparently aren’t enough change rooms in the barn as it is.

“We can move forward with some planning but that’s the factor I think we all have to wait for in March,” Barker said.

All that aside, can we talk about billets? The WSHL reps said the Hinton Wildcats have been so popular there’s a 15-home wait list to house players. A scenario floated at the press conference would keep housing Jasper players a town over on the table given the limited stock here.

“Billeting could be a potential problem,” Barker said. “But if you look at the past here, whether it’s through the schools, housing exchange students and whatnot, usually the residents of Jasper are fairly accommodating with those types of things.”

They’re looking at other ideas, including a dormitory set-up. They didn’t elaborate on where the dorm would be.

“It’s all quite preliminary.”

Active teams have until Feb. 28 to sign up and opt in to the 2019-20 season. New teams would have until the league’s AGM at the end of May, when the schedule is drawn up, to have their affairs in order.

There would be 24 home games played in Jasper. The league says some of the 20-year-old players who graduate from the league advance to US college teams or even further.

“Our whole rink is pretty full for the beer league final, so it’ll be interesting to see how full we get the rink every night for kids who want to go and progress,” Melnyk said.

Earlier at Tuesday’s meeting, Coun. Paul Butler asked Prue what benefit the team would bring to Jasper.

“The younger hockey gets better – players have something to strive for,” he replied. “More importantly, it’s a rallying point for the community. It gives everybody something to talk about and it’s in the community on every level. In Cold Lake, team volunteers called Snow Angels are shovelling snow for people with mobility issues, if there’s a Swedish player and the local school is learning about Sweden, they can go in, speak to them in the language. Really, the sky is the limit and it’s usually a great group.”

White pointed to the potential financial impact.

“There will be 24 home games, that’s 24 nights that ten people are going to need hotel rooms and the like,” he said. “Typically a small town like Jasper is more successful than a metropolitan team” where there is more competition for entertainment and sponsorship dollars.

Coun. Rico Damota said he supports the pitch.

“I can’t deliver any promises but you definitely have my support. It’s great for the community,” he said. “When we’re talking about Junior A, since my time on the council and living in Jasper, it’s ‘What’s there for the youth to do?’ Just having this as a social gathering place and the level of support is important and adds to our community health.”