It’s called the Alberta Advantage. And it may not be exclusive to the business, tax and commerce benefits the province perpetually boasts any longer.
In fact, its relevance could now be argued it extends to hockey too, particularly the Midget game.
Based on a burgeoning economy and population growth that leads the country, Alberta finds itself among the leaders nationally in almost every commercial category.
That strength has produced by-products in sociology that can now be measured on the ice and in hockey rinks across the Wild Rose province.
Since 1985, about the same time Alberta really emerged as one of Canada’s top economic engines, the Alberta Midget Hockey League started to carve its own national identity in Midget hockey.
It’s a run that has produced 17 medals over 26 years, including three gold, nine silver and five bronze at the National Midget Championship.
Other provinces can certainly find comparable success, but one thing is certain that Alberta is always a contender – if not a favourite – and will certainly be that again this year with the province hosting the 2012 TELUS Cup in Leduc, April 23-29.
“What you put in is what you get out,” says AMHL vice-president Bob Olynyk, who has been involved in Alberta Midget hockey for the past 26 years and minor hockey in-and-around the Edmonton area for the past 44 seasons. “I think a lot of the success is based on Alberta has always been a hockey hotbed. And Hockey Alberta in general has done a good job in getting high level coaches at the high level positions.
“You created strong teams by putting strong coaches in those positions.”
For example, most know Ken Hitchcock as a successful head coach in the National Hockey League. A Stanley Cup winner with the Dallas Stars in 1999, he is now the bench boss in St. Louis, where his Blues are among the favourites this season to challenge for the franchise’s first Cup.
However, before ascending to the NHL via the Western Hockey League, Hitchcock guided Sherwood Park’s Midget program to an incredible record of 575-69 over a 10-year period in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
As a result of creating a winning environment and a tremendously success program, Sherwood Park eventually reached the gold medal game at the Air Canada Cup in 1991 and settled for silver after dropping a tough decision in an all-Alberta final to the Calgary Northstars.
Since then, only once has an Alberta Midget team gone consecutive seasons without winning at least a medal at the national championship, 19.
And if Hitchcock tops the list of coaching alumni, the list of former players in the league is even more impressive.
Names like Jordan Eberle, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Joffrey Lupul, Derek Morris, Brad Stuart, Wes Walz and Chris Mason are all household names in hockey that once played in the AMHL and used their time there to springboard careers to junior and, eventually, to the NHL.
“It was a big stepping stone in my maturation,” says Mason, a goaltender with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, who returned to Alberta as a 17-year-old to finish his Midget eligibility after playing just five games with Victoria of the WHL in 1993-94. It was a decision he has never regretted.
“(The AMHL) really gave me the experience personally to be ready to go and play junior.”
Mason’s final Midget season was a Cinderella story for his Red Deer Chiefs. Not expected to get out of the first round of the AMHL playoffs, his team ended up beating the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club in the league final.
From there, they prevailed over Chilliwack to represent the Pacific Region and advanced to the national championship and the gold medal game.
However, the dream ended in utter heartbreak as Red Deer lost in triple overtime to the Regina Pat Canadians in the final. Despite the loss, Mason does remember the experience fondly.
“The whole journey for me was special,” says the 36-year-old Red Deer product. “The league has a great program and a solid mold. They’ve done very well with the coaching at that level and that’s really important to have good role models and be directed the right way at that age. Kids benefit from that.”
Moreover, keeping players like Mason at home for another year or two of midget hockey has certainly served the AMHL well, too.
Instead of moving on to the junior ranks at 16 or 17 and maybe struggling to receive sufficient ice time to develop, the ability to play a lot in Midget hockey for young Albertans and perhaps have a chance to win a national title based on the province’s historical success is obviously another positive draw for the AMHL overall.
That coupled with the fact that people like Olynyk and his colleagues around the league are constantly trying to improve the surroundings for their players makes the AMHL a hockey destination to aspire to – and stay – until graduation.
Winning, of course, breeds winning. And one of the other areas that the AMHL has certainly been able to cultivate into a favourable recruiting tool is private team dressing rooms.
A significant number of teams in the AMHL have recently secured their own dressing room within the arenas they play. This means equipment and other personal items can stay put between practice and games. It’s also a sanctuary for young men to call their own, almost like having their own room at home, Olynyk says.
This small amenity can produce large benefits.
“It has a lot do with your success,” he admits. “Kids feel important when they have their own place. And that really makes a huge difference to kids because kids want to make that team.”