Hockey academies are once again luring high calibre talent out of Lloydminster, only this time it’s the male bantam hockey program that’s suffering.
A year after the female hockey model in Alberta changed to combat the flow of elite level players from hometown teams to academy programs—which saw Hockey Alberta limit the midget AAA league to six teams in order to create a more competitive league that would keep female players at home—male programs are starting to see some of their best leave town in pursuit of hockey focused academies that offer more on- and off-ice training, and a perceived better shot at becoming a higher pick in the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft.
And for the Lloydminster Fountain Tire Bobcats bantam AAA team, it’s the difference between thinking of a run at the Western Canadian Bantam AAA Championship and fighting for a spot in the playoffs in the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League (AMBHL).
Lloydminster’s elite bantam program has been hard hit by some of their exceptional players deciding to go the academy route in their bantam year rather than staying at home.
Six players in all are suiting up elsewhere, including forwards Jordan Borysiuk, Logan Lorenz, Connor McClennon and Tyson Laventure who attend the Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy in Kelowna, B.C., defenceman Dalton Irvine who is in Edmonton at the Okanagan Hockey Group, and goaltender Andrei Proctor-Ramirez who is at the Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford, B.C, a massive hit for a Bobcats team that is struggling to find wins this season.
“I honestly believe we could have pushed for Westerns and we would have been the team to beat,” said Bobcats head coach Curtis Johnston.
“It would be a big difference. You talk about those high end kids who can slow a game down, who can control a game, help influence other players on their line, it would be huge.
“It would change the dynamic of our team quite a bit. Our team would look completely different.”
Borysiuk was named the AMBHL rookie of the year last year playing in Lloydminster, while Proctor-Ramirez was a stand out goaltender for the bantam team during their playoff run. McClennon, a native of Wainwright, which would put him in the Lloydminster zone for bantam AAA hockey, is considered to be a top pick in this year’s WHL Bantam Draft, with some scouts having him as high as No. 1.
Lloydminster isn’t alone in seeing their top end talent leaving to go to academy programs, as many teams in Alberta are seeing players go from the AMBHL to the academy leagues that offer plenty of coaching and training that could help raise a players draft stock.
Johnston looks at what the ‘99 bantams did back in 2014, where elite level players stayed in Lloydminster to play and win the AMBHL league championship fairly easily, before making a run at the Western Canadian Championship, where they finished with a silver medal.
That year, eight players from that team were drafted in the WHL Bantam Draft, which included two first round picks coming from Lloydminster in Jantzen Leslie and Kobe Mohr.
The following season, defenceman Ty Smith, who was a part of the 2014 championship team, went to the Delta Hockey Academy rather than playing in Lloydminster, and in the spring he was selected first overall by the Spokane Chiefs.
It’s been dubbed by many in the Lloydminster hockey community as the Ty Smith Effect, where a player leaves their local team for an academy in order to raise their draft ranking.
But many in Lloydminster are quick to point out that Smith, no matter if he played at home or at an academy, was always going to be a top draft pick that year, and that his decision to play for Delta wasn’t entirely based on the idea that an academy program would be better for his development, but also because it would be better for his family if he played away from home, due to a single parent having three kids in sports.
“They’ve seen Ty Smith go first overall in that draft and he went to (Delta),” said Johnston. “I think they see that is where the first overall draft pick went. Ty went for different reasons other than that. He’s a client of mine and I know why he left for family reasons, it didn’t have to do with the league being better. But I think kids now think it’s the best league, more exposure and the structure of their program is different than ours is in Lloydminster.”
In order to keep top end players in Lloydminster, some changes may be on the horizon. The Lloydminster Minor Hockey Association (LMHA) isn’t at the stage where changes will be coming next season, but they realize their is an issue and are planning for the future.
Currently the Bobcats practice after school, which makes for a long night when dry land training and homework is incorporated into the after school activities list.
Lloydminster may look at moving practices to the early morning, which will open up more ice time away from the crowded evening schedule, while also freeing up the players after school in order to still do dry land training and homework, but also have a life away from the rink.
Currently the Lloydminster PWM Steelers midget female hockey team practices in the morning up to four times a week.
“We’re in the process of looking at it, (but) we haven’t reached out to anyone about it yet,” said Riley Fletcher, chairman of the LMHA Elite board. “Our main goal is to keep the kids here. The big thing we are told why kids leave is because they get more ice time and they are getting their evenings free. We have tried to keep all the kids but they get lured out with promises of whatever the school wants to promise them. I don’t know how much more we can do to keep them here, but it is concerning that we are losing top end kids like that every year.”
To change the entire elite program and all its’ teams to morning practices would require involvement from the schools to accommodate practices during the day, something Fletcher said the LMHA has not yet discussed with any school or board.
At a cost of around $7,500 to $10,000 before fundraising, playing at home is also a cheaper option, as academy programs can run over $20,000. But families are willing to pay those high fees when schools are using top draft positions as selling tools.
“The schools go to parents and say, these are the kids we’ve had go through and this is what we can offer your kid,” said Fletcher. “The schools are using it as a selling point for sure. That second year of bantam is a crazy year for parents and kids and it gets really stressful for a lot of people.”
In the meantime, the bantam Bobcats will continue to fight with who they have, looking to make a run at the AMBHL playoffs and turn their season into a success.
For this season, they won’t be getting any extra help, and it’s yet to be seen whether or not this trend will continue in the future, seeing more top end level hockey players leaving the city for greener academy pastures.