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Multiple factors identified in hockey academy's breakaway from Banff

“The competitive nature of our program was starting to drop off."

BANFF – The Banff Hockey Academy Bears’ (BHA) time in the Bow Valley is at an end with reasons for the change ranging from passing of the program’s torch, to housing issues, to a major decline in its competitive nature in recent years.

On Saturday (May 16), the program announced it’s relocating to Dunmore, near Medicine Hat, and will be known as the South Alberta Hockey Academy (SAHA) starting in the 2020-21 season. The academy developed high school aged student-athletes in hockey and academics for 25 years in Banff.

“I stepped away from the computer a couple times just because I was too emotional to write the letter I needed to write to somebody that cared for us and we cared for them,” said Bill Doherty, BHA founder, president and coach. “It’s been hard, for sure. But I do believe this opens other opportunities for the community.”

SAHA’s U18 male and female prep teams replace BHA in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL) with the Medicine Hat Family Leisure Centre serving as new home ice. SAHA student-athletes will attend Eagle Butte High School of the Prairie Rose School Division.

Over the past few years, Doherty investigated finding someone to take over the academy with multiple candidates in the mix. However, he believes it's a "great move" to go with Willie Desjardins, owner and operator of SAHA, who shared the same vision for the program moving forward.

“We’re looking for sustainability,” Doherty said. “We want the legacy of the program to carry on, even if it’s relocated. What we do is for kids to develop and leave with a positive experience and are inspired and feeling great about themselves and we’re looking for the best scenario where that could have happened.”

SAHA is a skills academy in the greater Medicine Hat area and Desjardins will oversee the change of management during the relocation. BHA coaches Evan Vossen and Petra Pravlíková will join SAHA, said Doherty. Doherty will be an advisor.

“We are excited to offer our student athletes the opportunity to learn and train with academic and athletic staff and we are looking forward to getting back on the ice,” said Desjardins, in a press release.

Before the relocation gets underway, Doherty said BHA will settle its accounts and "leave the community whole".

"We’ve had some significant stakeholders here. The school and the Town have been great partners in this," Doherty said. "All our partners, everyone who's been involved in this unbelievable 25-year run, will be left whole and our hope is that while hard for us to grasp with the emotional tear of this, I do think we have so many good memories and we want it to stay that way."

Relocation wasn’t his first choice, but remained an option, said Doherty. The COVID-19 outbreak, however, accelerated the decision-making process in the matter.

Plus, operating the academy in the popular tourist town proved challenging with housing difficult to come by and the geography of Banff causing a decline in on-ice talent choosing BHA.

“The competitive nature of our program was starting to drop off,” Doherty said. “While for us, we thought the engine of our program was strong; we have great coaches here and … we were looking for solutions for that.”

Since the 2017-18 season, the male prep team’s overall CSSHL record was five wins and 101 losses, including going 2-34 in its last season in Banff. Things on the ice weren’t much better for the female prep team, which went 5-66 over the past three years, including 1-22 in its final season.

When the CSSHL was founded in 2009, just five sport schools including BHA were apart of its inaugural season. Today, 20 sport schools particpate in the league and many of these schools rely on the proximity of a major city to recruit student-athletes.

For BHA, this left them "low on the totem pole," and bringing in talent from Calgary or surrounding municipalities proved dire with five AAA and two other CSSHL teams already within 150 kilometres of the major city.

BHA’s focus turned to recruiting elsewhere in Canada and internationally, which produced a vastly lacklustre product in the CSSHL.

Housing challenges included BHA's lease expiring this summer at the BHA house, it's hub, located on Banff Avenue beside the high school. In 2013, the land was sold to Banff Housing Corporation for $1.3 million and the house will be demolished and turned into 20 to 25 affordable one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

The BHA house accommodated 15-18 boys per season and was a short walk to Banff Fenlands Recreation Centre, where the academy's offices and home ice were located.

“Did it contribute [to relocating]? Of course. It had to,” Doherty said. “We had 10 billet families in our community, so this would have meant we would needed to get 10 new billets. So for sure there was some challenges there.”

Amanda Arbuckle, Banff’s manager of recreation services, said BHA and the Town have a "great working relationship" and she doesn't foresee any challenges moving forward.

“I would say [BHA’s been a] great tenant and great lease holder and we're really sad to see them go and we wish Billy and his team all the best with their move,” said Arbuckle.

Arbuckle added its too premature to determine what the vacant office space at Fenlands will be used for.

For now, Doherty will be an advisor for the SAHA during the transition period, but after a quarter of a century of teaching kids the game, old habits are hard to break.

"I want to explore and support and help the game grow and do good things and do good things for kids and that's kind of my dream," Doherty said. "I don’t think they’ve found cure or a vaccine for this coaching virus that I have. And I expect myself to be quarantined behind a bench soon.”


Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

Jordan Small joined the Outlook in 2014 and covers the vast world of sports in the Bow Valley. A Barrie, Ont. native, he also wrote for RMO's Mountain Guide section and the MD of Bighorn beat.
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