Senior AAA hockey league in Alberta to go ahead with 2 teams, both named Eagles

In Alberta Senior AAA hockey this season, the winner will be the Eagles.

The runner-up will also be the Eagles.

That's because there are only two teams this season in Allan Cup Hockey West League: the Stony Plain Eagles and the Innisfail Eagles.

The two teams will face off against each other eight times in a series dubbed "the Battle of The Birds." 

"It's gonna be a battle," said Ryan Dodd, general manager of the Innisfail Eagles. "I guarantee that the games are going to be fast paced and hard hitting and we look forward to it."

In recent years, there were four or five teams at the Senior AAA level. Last year, the league was set to start with five teams: the Lacombe Generals, the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs, the Rosetown (Saskatchewan) Redwings and the Innisfail and Stony Plain Eagles. 

Stony Plain Eagles/Innisfail Eagles

The Chiefs took a leave of absence shortly after the start of the season, and this year will compete at the AA level in the North Central Hockey League. In May, Rosetown decided to withdraw from the Allan Cup Hockey West League and shortly after the Lacombe Generals, the 2019 national champions, ceased operations.

That left just Innisfail and Stony Plain at the AAA level.

It's just a coincidence that both teams are named the Eagles; both teams have long histories in senior hockey. 

"There is a little bit of a rivalry, and it starts with both names being the Eagles, and it dates back from even the '80s when they used to do some battle," said Rob Sklaruk, general manager of the Stony Plain Eagles. "So certainly there's lots of pride to be had and lots great, great hockey to be had over here in the next few months to see where it all ends up."

The goal of both teams is to compete for the Allan Cup, Canada's senior men's hockey championship that dates back to 1909.

The Allan Cup has a rich history and was designed to be the prize for the top amateur team, while the Stanley Cup was for the top team of professionals. Some winners of the Allan Cup have represented the Canada on the international stage, including the Trail Smoke Eaters, the Whitby Dunlops and the Drumheller Miners.

Some players who have competed for the Allan Cup have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

Last season, Innisfail were the runners-up, the team's best finish.  

Stony Plain won the Allan Cup in 1999, but they too are seeking to recapture the coveted championship. 

Submitted by Innisfail Eagles

Although it's called senior hockey, the players are not that old, said Dodd. Most are in their 20s, and even the older players aren't usually older than 35 or 36. 

Many have played junior or university hockey. Some have also played professionally, including some NHL alumni.

Innisfail is being coached by Brain Sutter, who played more than 1,000 games in the NHL and won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 1991.

Former Edmonton Oilers star Ryan Smyth played with Stony Plain in 2017 before getting a concussion from a blindside hit. His brother, Kevin Smyth — also a former NHLer — is now with the Eagles. 

Though Senior AAA hockey in Alberta may be at a crossroads with only two teams this season, Sklaruk said it's important to have high-level senior hockey to give players somewhere to play when they aren't ready to step away from the game. 

"I think some guys at the age of 25, 26, even the age of 35, it's too young to hang it up," he said. "If they can still play, then why not?"

The first game of the Battle of The Birds is set for Stony Plain's Glenn Hall Centennial Arena on Nov. 23.

Whichever team finishes with the most points in the eight-game series will get home-ice advantage for a best-of-seven playoff match-up  in February. 

According to Hockey Alberta, whoever wins that series will be declared provincial champion and will go to the Allan Cup in Dundas and Hamilton, Ont., in April.