MENZIES: A balanced schedule will make for honest positional races in the AJHL

Will old myths be dispelled by a new schedule and new divisional format? 

That’s perhaps the biggest question addressed in the new Alberta Junior Hockey League schedule, officially released on Thursday morning with a revamp. 

Is the soft South, as teams in the North have dubbed it over the year, really that soft? Well now, all 16 teams in the league will play each other four times. No longer are the days of division titles – just one fat 16 team table. 

Bonnyville will play Canmore just as many times as Lloydminster. Everyone in the league will get more familiar. 

Plus, add another couple of games to the total. Sixty-two contests beginning on September 15th against the Drumheller Dragons for the Yaks. 

What’s interesting about the change is that the most recent season of 22-23 saw the South likely stronger overall  than the North. At least, it was close. 

The Blackfalds Bulldogs willingness to spend and recruit has shook up that cluster of teams, and they overhauled most of its roster last season to find a way to the South Division final. 

The perception was with the South Division that the powerhouses could feed on playing the Olds Grizzlys and Calgary Canucks six times each to inflate their record. 

But in the North, the complete dropoff of the Drayton Valley Thunder last season, coupled with the scorched earth rebuild in Grande Prairie and languishing of the Lloyd Bobcats, you could argue pound for pound the South was a stronger division last year. 

My biggest curiosity will be if the true table creates more parity when it comes to the playoffs. 

Last year, only the Pontiacs created a seeded “upset” when as a 3-seed, they beat the 2-seed Whitecourt Wolverines. But they each had the same number of wins throughout the season, so it was certainly not an “upset” in any traditional sense. 

The top two teams will receive byes, the bottom two teams will miss the playoffs, and the 3-seed will play the 14-seed, 4-seed play the 13-seed, 5-seed play the 12-seed, and so on and so forth. 

The possible matchups are wide open. 

The Alberta Junior Hockey League also says they will introduce a pilot program for video review on goals at specific AJHL arenas across the province. Perhaps a botched call like Max Seguin’s disallowed goal would’ve counted in Game 1 of the Pontiacs vs the Spruce Grove Saints. 

I’m pessimistic on that front. 

Also, my understanding is the league is mandating dual audio capabilities for HockeyTV viewers, meaning, yes, more Michael Menzies in your ears. Apologies in advance. 

My biggest gripe is the expansion to 62 games. 

Who are these games for? What is decided through 62 games that can’t be determined through 54? This is something the BCHL – now no longer affiliated with Hockey Canada – has right. 

When you get into the dog-days of January and are playing in front of 300 people in Drayton Valley, you wonder these things. 

Less mid-week games, more weekend games. 

Sixty was already too many – 62 is ripe for injuries and doesn’t benefit the players or the teams all that much. Keep the weekends for hockey, save the weekdays for practice and training. 

Overall, this schedule does mean more travel for the Yaks, who already have the third most in the AJHL. 

That means for the first time in over a decade, the Yaks will have stretches where they play three games in three days, something many teams have kept in their schedules. 

But as far as tough stretches, this is a fairly even schedule. 

One potential rough spot is mid-February. 

Bonnyville plays Whitecourt and Grande Prairie twice from Feb. 9-11, then to travel to Brooks and Drumheller the following weekend. Five straight road games with overnight travel. 

Otherwise, this will be a unique experiment for the league, one I know that all teams weren’t in favour of. 

Some will be brought into the realities of travelling several hours on a gameday. 

Will it change the overall picture heading into the playoffs? Perhaps a bit, but the different playoff matchups will be a fun change for fans to watch this upcoming season. 

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