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What is the current state of hockey in Alberta?
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For many Albertans, hockey is more than just a sport – it’s a way of life. The full throttle spectacle on ice that is hockey has been synonymous with Alberta for generations, and has seen the game become deeply embedded within the province’s culture. In fact, hockey is so loved in Alberta that it remains the province’s most popular sport, with 44.7% of people stating they follow hockey the most closely – more than anywhere else in Canada.

With six Stanley Cup wins coming home to Alberta, it is easy to see why people love the sport so much. However, with no title clinched since 1990, we’ve taken a look at the state of hockey in Alberta today, and what is being done to shift the momentum back in the province’s favor.

Oilers vs Flames

Alberta possesses two hockey teams at the highest tier of professional hockey, with the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames both playing in the Western Conference Pacific Division of the NHL. Often referred to as the Battle of Alberta, the rivalry between the two teams has developed into one of the fiercest in the league. It is pretty undeniable that the Oilers are the most successful of the two teams – they’re currently tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the most championships titles, with five of these taking place between 1984 and 1990.

During this time, the Oilers possessed one of the greatest hockey players of all time in Wayne Gretzky. In comparison, the Flames won their one and only championship back in 1989. Ever since, both teams have struggled to get back to that same commanding level, with only a handful of promising play-off showings. However, in 2022 we witnessed an Albertan ‘one-two’ as the Flames narrowly edged out the Oilers to win the Pacific Division, highlighting the quality of hockey coming out of Alberta and the potential for future success in the province.

Unfortunately, this season has once again proven frustrating for Flames fans, with the team languishing at the bottom of the division having been eliminated from playoff contention. The same can’t be said for the Oilers. After recording their sixteenth straight win of the season earlier this year, the Oilers have clinched a playoff berth – only five points behind the division leaders. Whilst it’s still early days, Oilers fans will be dreaming of adding a sixth cup to their collection.

Not Just a Sport

Over the past few years, NHL has seen its viewership steadily increase, with the sport now attracting a larger and more diverse fanbase than ever before. This can be attributed to several reasons. Firstly, several modifications to the game rules have led to a more exciting and fast-paced game, providing a more entertaining spectacle for audience members. Secondly, teams have effectively used marketing and social media to connect more with their fanbase, providing them with new team insights and bringing them closer to their favourite players.

Hockey is now not just a sport, but a key player in the entertainment industry. This can be seen with the emergence of successful iGaming and sports betting markets across Canada. As it’s legal to play in Alberta, online casinos and iGaming sites have experienced a boost due to increased hockey viewership, even making games such as slots with hockey themes. The Albertan government has even set aside a million dollars for a review into how to create a competitive and regulated gambling market like that of Ontario.

Youth Focus

It’s not just in the professional leagues where Alberta is making promising steps for the future – there is also a strong focus on youth development and coaching. The province possesses a robust and competitive minor league system, which caters for children of all ages and abilities. This ranges from early years grassroots programs which aim to inspire a love of the game and nurture talent in young players, to elite leagues for promising young players who feel they may have a future in the professional game.

As well as developing skills on the ice, coaches provide lessons in teamwork and good sportsmanship during training sessions, providing kids with values that are equally important in all aspects of life. The Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) serves as a bridge to the professional game for young players with sufficient talent and drive. For players aged 20 years and under, the AJHL provides a similar platform to the college system for NFL or NBA players, and serves as a breeding ground for future NHL stars. In fact, during the 2022-23 season there were 21 former AJHL players on NHL rosters, highlighting its ability to nurture talent.

An interesting recent development has been the formation of a breakaway youth league known as the Hockey Super League (HSL). Set up by former Oiler Ryan Smyth, this unsanctioned league has grown from 9 teams when it was created in 2017 to 80 teams as of this year. Critical of the quality of coaching and development offered within the traditional minor leagues set up by Hockey Canada, the HSL aims to provide a pathway for highly skilled players with a greater focus on skill level, while disregarding the geographical limitations imposed by minor leagues.

Though it may cost up to $5,500 per year for a child to play in the HSL, it appears as though parents are willing to pay for what they believe to be a superior system for their child. The minor leagues will have to respond to this and improve the quality of their leagues – either way, youth hockey in Alberta will continue to develop its promising young players into future stars.

Nothing encompasses the cultural influence of hockey quite like the intense rivalry between the Flames and the Oilers, one of the most passionate and hotly contested match-ups in professional sports. It highlights just how important these teams are to their Albertan communities, and the strong emotional connection felt by generations of supporters. It goes to show that even with a 34-year championship drought, fans in Alberta have not lost their love for hockey. Game on!

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