Sports schools or under-18 AAA clubs …
Which is better?
It’s a question that’s been asked more and more regularly in recent years.
The Mac’s International Hockey Tournament probably isn’t going to give fans a definitive answer.
It could, however, provide a little clarity – or maybe it will just add fuel to the debate’s fire.
James Poole may have a better understanding of how club teams and sports school sides stack up than just about anybody. He’s been the head coach of the Edge School’s under-18 prep team since 2017 but was the head coach of the Calgary Buffaloes in the Alberta AAA Midget Hockey League from 2007-10.
The Buffaloes won the Mac’s tournament back in 2008, so Poole knows all about the tournament, and he believes the sports schools are ready to compete this year.
“I think five or 10 years ago, the sports school league, competitively, was behind the clubs,” said Poole, who was also GM / head coach of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Okotoks Oilers from 2010-16. “I don’t know if you’ll get a true representation this week at the Mac’s Tournament, but I think the sports schools really closed the gap and are kind of even with the clubs or potentially past them. I think you’ll get some answers this week, but I’m pretty confident that our top sports schools will stack up quite well against the club teams. “
The inclusion of sports schools at this year’s Mac’s tournament adds a certain level of intrigue to the whole competition. Seeing how the top academic programs match up with Western Canada’s elite club teams is something the schools themselves have wanted for years.
With an increasing number of young prospects coming out of top sports schools, there is no doubting the top-end talent. Is there the depth to compete with top U18 AAA teams from around the region, though? We’ll find out.
“People want to see the best on best and how they stack up,” said tournament GM Jesse Hale of a process that included discussion with WHL scouts. “I think it’s going to bring a lot of fans here who’ve wanted to see that for a long time. I think the games are going to be really close.
“Just because they’re a sport school doesn’t mean they’re going to be superior or inferior, so we’ll see how that shakes out.”
With 10 teams from the 17-program Canadian Sport School Hockey League set to showcase their wares at the Mac’s this week, there will undoubtedly be some winners and losers. It’s not as if the results of will conclusively answer the question about whether it’s better for players to develop in an academic or club environment.
But there’s some bragging rights on the line, no doubt about it.
Regardless, the sports schools are definitely happy to be there.
The CSSHL schools got busy early on Wednesday’s Day 1 of the Mac’s, scoring two morning wins over U18 competition when the Edge doubled up the BC Elite Hockey League’s Fraser Valley Thunderbirds 10-5 and the OHA Penticton upended the defending champion Calgary Buffaloes of the Alberta Elite Hockey League 5-2. In other CSSHL action Wednesday; RINK Winnipeg shut out Edmonton’s South Side Athletics of the AEHL 7-0; BC’s Shawnigan Lake edged the BCEHL’s Greater Vancouver Canadians 2-1; the Northern Alberta Xtreme got blanked by the AEHL’s Calgary Royals 2-0; OHA Edmonton fell to the BCEHL’s Vancouver NW Hawks 5-4; St. George’s School was edged by the AEHL’s Calgary Northstars 1-0; and the South Alberta Hockey Academy dumped Manitoba’s U18 AAA Eastman Selects 5-2.
“It’s been the best tournament in Canada and North America, and it’s in our own backyard, so to always be kind of excluded and not be able to play in it is tough,” Poole said. “We feel we’ve really grown as a league… Competitively, you want to play the best competition.
“We feel our team stacks up against any team, whether it’s sports school or club team, and we’re a legitimate threat to win it, and we’re excited about the opportunity. There’s certainly not as much pressure, It’s more, ‘Hey let’s go have some fun and see if we can’t win this thing.’ We wish we had our full team, and it’s still unclear whether we’ll get some players back from WHL or not. No matter what, we feel we stack up against the best teams and we’re excited about the opportunity. “
Four of the CSSHL teams hail from Alberta – Springbank’s Edge School, OHA Edmonton, Devon’s Northern Alberta Extreme and Dunmore’s South Alberta Hockey Academy. The CSSHL BC entries are OHA Penticton, RINK Kelowna, Abbotsford’s Yale Hockey Academy, Vancouver’s St. George’s School and Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake U18 Prep. Rounding out the CSSHL squads is Manitoba’s RINK Winnipeg.