CDAC Red Wings grounded
Former Camrose District Athletic Association Red Wings players (from left) Nick Mantai, Conrad Philips, Kale Hurlbert, Lane Brockhoff, minor midget coach Jeremy Berines and CDAC president Chad Kendall gather in the Red Wings’ locker room at the Max McLean Arena in Camrose on Friday. Josh Aldrich/Camrose Canadian
Local elite-level minor hockey players could be looking for a new home next season.
Local minor hockey officials had been lobbying Hockey Alberta officials to increase their draw zone, instead they were told through an email that the Camrose draw zone instead was being eliminated. This action would effectively shut down the Camrose and District Athletic Club Red Wings bantam AAA and minor midget AAA teams.
"We do have small numbers … however we feel player development is of the utmost importance," said CDAC president Chad Kendall. "They're here to have fun and develop skill and we're competing with these teams."
The Red Wings have been in existence since 2013, but the bantam AAA and minor midget programs have been running for 11 years.
Hockey Alberta has not confirmed or denied the reports that started to become public on May 30. Hockey Alberta officials declined to be interviewed, but issued the following email statement: "Over the past year, Hockey Alberta’s Male Alberta Development Model (ADM) committee has been working with the host minor hockey associations to identify if any changes are required in the program to respond to ever changing registration trends. At this time, those discussions are ongoing and no formal announcements have been made. As changes are completed in the coming weeks, the ADM committee will notify all of our member minor hockey associations and a public posting will be made at hockeyalberta.ca so that all players will have access to the information they require for next season."
Kendall said the Camrose zone is the smallest in the province, last year they had 128 players registered in bantam and 58 in the minor midget age level. CDAC was seeking to expand the draw zone east to include Hardisty area, west to include Wetaskiwin and south to include Maskwacis and Ponoka. Had their request been agreed to, they would have potentially doubled the numbers of players to choose from. It would have also made more sense from travel standpoint. The next elite draw zone to the east is Lloydminster, to the north its Sherwood Park and to the south is Red Deer. This would have effectively created a rural regional team for players, cutting their commute drastically and providing those players with more opportunity.
"We're giving rural kids an opportunity, as well, we're giving kids from Camrose a chance to play bantam AAA, it would be very tough to go to Leduc or Sherwood Park to play," said Kendall. "The other factor is, the Sherwood Park and Leduc cuts have come here, we have developed them and pushed them back to those places for major midget AAA, we've developed them and made those teams stronger."
The news comes as a major blow for a program that has been one of the most successful in the province at grooming players for the next level. One year ago the Red Wings had a record eight players selected in the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft. In a rebuilding year in 2017-18 they still had one — Sam Popowich — picked. "We do have some strong kids coming up and we have probably a handful of kids that will be on WHL teams radars and there will be at least a couple of them drafted," said bantam AAA Red Wings head coach Darryl Gagnon, who found out while at work as concerned parents texted him. "Where does (this decision) leave those kids? It's just going to be another cost for their parents to play in Sherwood Park."
It is not just the WHL teams that have benefitted from this program. Teams throughout the Alberta Junior Hockey League have ben strengthened through CDAC. Chief among them the Camrose Kodiaks who this past season alone had six players — Kyler Kupka, Jacob Kendall, Nick Maintain, Brennan Davis, Daine Milgate, and Dallon Melin — play for them. These players represent a good chunk of their core for the present and the next few seasons.
Junior A hockey is the stepping stone for many players to a college education — Kupka has committed to Alaska Fairbanks for the 2019-20 season.
Kodiaks head coach and general manager Boris Rybalka says he is committed to helping the Red Wings find a way to continue.
"It's good for rural kids," he said. "You look at the big picture, there's 38 kids that don't get a chance to play AAA hockey if its taken away from Camrose. That's a big thing ... There's a lot of kids that have played in Camrose because of the bantam AAA program or the U16 program and now they have the chance to develop."
The timing of the decision is also a source of frustration.
The Red Wings had just hired Jeremy Beirnes to run the minor midget team and Gagnon is now left standing in the game of coaching musical chairs with most positions already filled.
CDAC has also already ordered $15,000 worth of team branded gear for the 2018-19 season. As well, they have received no direction as to what draw zone Camrose players will now be included in. Even if they have, many of those clubs have already started the early evaluation process.
"We're hoping we can salvage this year," said CDAC president Chad Kendall. "We were under the impression that we would be expanding our draw area, not cutting it completely out."