Having a vast draw zone has always been beneficial for the Foothills CFR Chemicals Bisons, but in the end, it might be the mitigating factor that sends them out the door.
The future of the Bisons is an ambiguous one, in regards to where the three-time defending Chrysler division champs will call home next season.
“Every few years we evaluate and review various areas of our program,” said Hockey Alberta senior manager of communications Brad Lyon. “This year we are reviewing male triple-A hockey and the overall layout across the entire province.”
The first item on Hockey Alberta’s agenda is to see if the South East Athletic Club Tigers and Lethbridge Hurricanes will merge into one team. The registration numbers in Medicine Hat’s draw zone are the lowest in the province. A merger has been proposed by both organizations, as Hockey Alberta determines a new location for the proposed team.
At the very opposite end of the spectrum is the Airdrie Elite draw zone, which the Bisons fall under, which has the healthiest registration numbers in the province.
Hockey Alberta released the registration numbers for each zone, dating back to the 2012-2013 season. In the past five seasons, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat have finished in the bottom two for registered players each year, except in the 2015-2016 season when Medicine Hat saw six more players register than the Lloydminster zone. Medicine Hat has averaged 277 kids and Lethbridge has averaged 276.
Aside from the big city zones of Calgary and Edmonton, the Airdrie Elite zone has registered anywhere between 200-300 more players each year than the next closest zone, averaging 740 kids per year.
The Airdrie Elite zone has supplied the Bisons with players from the Cochrane, Airdrie, Foothills, Okotoks and Strathmore area. Recently, one region has decided to branch out and submit a bid for another team, creating a new draw zone within the old zone.
Last year, Okotoks filed the paperwork to establish their own draw zone, but was rejected. After applying again this year, they have been awarded the rights to their own draw zone and midget AAA franchise for next season.
“What has been decided is that there will be a new Okotoks draw zone created for next year,” said Lyon.
The new draw zone will result in a divide of the current Airdrie Elite draw zone.
“As a league, we make the schedule and we run the discipline. The league has no say in where the team plays,” said Alberta Midget Hockey League president Bob Olynyk.
The very details and geographic lines of the new draw zones are still being ironed out, but a final answer should be coming down the pipe relatively soon.
“We don’t know what each draw zone will look like just yet,” said president of the Foothills association Dave Attwood. “Somewhere in the draw zone could host another team. There is interest in having those teams play out of Okotoks and Airdrie. But nothing is official yet.”
Having two midget AAA draw zones creates a problem for the Bisons, who have played out of Strathmore since the early 1990s.
Strathmore could fall within Okotoks’ draw zone. With Okotoks receiving their own team for next season, it isn’t likely that one zone would host two teams.
If Strathmore falls outside of the Okotoks draw zone, remaining in the Airdrie Elite zone, there is some serious talk about Airdrie wanting to bring the Bisons “home.” The Bisons have always been carded out of Airdrie, despite playing all of their home games in Strathmore.
Mark Bishop, the Wheatland Athletic Association representative, was a little curious about the committee’s timing in making the move to rearrange the zones.
“The hockey will get somewhat weaker with more teams in the zone. It just begs the question, ‘why now?’” said Bishop. “Is it because of the success the Bisons are having now?”
The Bisons just reached the Alberta Midget Hockey League final and are fresh off the best regular season campaign since moving to a 34-game schedule.
“Airdrie has already expressed an appetite to house the team. The only scenario for the Bisons to stay in Strathmore would be if they stayed in the Airdrie draw zone and Airdrie allows the team to stay put,” said Bishop.
“I highly doubt that the Bisons will be in Strathmore next year.”
If the changes result in the Bisons staying in the Airdrie Elite draw zone, Todd Slaney, vice president of High Performance Airdrie Minor Hockey, can see the Ron Ebbesen arena be the new home for the Herd.
“There’s a 100 per cent chance we would like to get the Bisons up here, if the draw zones allow it,” said Slaney.
Strathmore residents won’t be receiving any support from the AMHL offices on helping keep the Bisons.
“Airdrie owns the franchise,” said Olynyk. “Where they play is up to Airdrie. It’s a zone team, where they play is none of the league’s business.”
If the Bisons leave, it will leave a void in the community.
“We haven’t had any confirmation that this is going to happen. We have our fingers crossed that this doesn’t happen,” said Strathmore mayor Michael Ell. “The hockey players have been very good in our community, they are a part of the high school and they are an asset to this community.”
In the meantime, Bison fans will just have to wait until further meetings are held regarding the zone changes to determine the location of future teams.