Junior A hockey could really be happening in Slave Lake in 2019.
Proponents of a franchise for Slave Lake were in town last week, and apparently not just on a fishing expedition. The league commissioner was here all the way from southern California. With him were his boss of international expansion, Edmontonian Derek Prue, and a representative of the financial backers for a team in Slave Lake for next season. That person’s name is Lauren Barr.
“There is already an ownership group in place,” Barr said. “This is now my full-time job. To make sure this goes ahead successfully.”
Ron White, the commissioner, tackled the subject of success at the Jan. 30 news conference.
White provided background on how the Western States Hockey League (whose new Canadian division is the Western Provinces Hockey Association) was limping along with eight teams eight years ago. What happened to make it successful, White said, was getting out from under the restrictions of U.S.A. Hockey. Doing that allowed it to double the number of ‘import’ players from three to six. That’s since been increased to 14 imports per team, and the quality of play has gone up “a thousand per cent,” White said.
‘Imports’ in this context are non-North Americans. There is no limit to the number of Canadians, Americans or Mexicans a team can have.
The WSHL brought in lots of Europeans and others, White continued. The hockey got better and people showed up to watch. The number of teams grew and as of last year, four teams started in the Western Canadian arm of the league. Those are Edson, Hinton, Cold Lake and Meadow Lake.
A group in Jasper – led by the Jasper Brewing Co. – is keen to get a team in the league. White and Prue were in Jasper the day before visiting Slave Lake, on a similar mission. An optimistic story on the prospects for Junior ‘A’ in Jasper appeared the next day in the online version of the Jasper Fitzhugh newspaper. A possible challenge is securing a lease agreement for the municipal arena in the mountain town. Apparently it is overdue for some upgrades.
Arena upgrades probably wouldn’t be an issue in Slave Lake. But the only thing that could be a deal killer at this stage, said White, is the arena lease agreement with the town. And he put that at a “two-to-three per cent chance” of being a deal-breaker.
“We feel very optimistic,” said Barr.
The group had met with Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman and some administration people earlier that same day.
“There are some things that have to be worked out,” Warman told The Leader. He added that like any negotiation, the party asks for “a lot of things.” Although the town would like to see a new team, “we have to protect the taxpayers.” The details of that Warman did not share. However, he said, “We made some good headway today.”
Informed of the mayor’s comments, Prue had the following response in an email to The Leader:
“As far as the lease goes, there is nothing that I would consider to be out of the ordinary. In fact, we used the same template for Slave Lake as was used for all four existing teams, as well as other potential new teams. Each municipality has to act in the best interests of its community, so I am assuming that is what Mayor Warman is referring to. There is nothing specific that comes to mind. In fact after the meeting with administration after the Mayor’s meeting, I felt that we had everything pretty much agreed to in principle.”
At the news conference, Barr said everything hinges on the lease agreement. Once that hurdle is cleared, she’ll be looking to hire a coach/general manager. Another important component would be launching a ‘booster club’ locally, to promote ticket sales and such. Billeting players would be another challenge. Questions were asked about it at the meeting. All three reps told versions of the same story; it’s been a good experience in the other towns in the WPHA this year. Barr read a letter from the mayor Hinton, Marcel Michaels, in which the billeting situation was mentioned.
“There’s now a waiting list to host players,” he said.
White spoke about last year’s effort to get a team in Slave Lake running out of time. This year, he said “(We) have to have all the pieces in place pretty much by April 1.”
If the Town of Hinton is anything to go by, the lease agreement might take some time. Hans van Klaveren, Hinton’s interim director of community services, says negotiations started in February and a three-year deal was signed in May.
“It was close,” van Klaveren says. “Last minute for us, but it worked.”
The proponents came to town initially looking for local ownership. As in Slave Lake, they didn’t find any. But the Hinton team was able to go ahead due to out-of-town owners stepping up. Van Klaveren said since then, local investors have taken over.
“It’s nice to see,” he said. “It’s well supported. It’s a night out for a family on a Friday or a Saturday.”