Portage College hockey team to remain in Lac La Biche

After a lengthy off-ice battle between two northeastern Alberta communities, the Portage College Voyageurs men’s hockey team will remain in Lac La Biche instead of moving to Cold Lake.

‘There was a great buzz about getting this team,’ says disappointed Cold Lake mayor

Members of the Portage College Voyageurs watch their teammates on the ice. (Youtube)

After a lengthy off-ice battle between two northeastern Alberta communities, the Portage College Voyageurs men's hockey team will remain in Lac La Biche instead of moving to Cold Lake.

The uncertainty has been difficult for some players, who until recently hadn't known which of the communities they would be calling home this fall. Cold Lake is 150 kilometres southeast of Lac La Biche, which is 215 km northeast of Edmonton.

In January, the Voyageurs, based in Lac La Biche, asked the City of Cold Lake for financial support.

At the same time, the team was trying to reach a new funding deal with Lac La Biche County, according to documents supporting a lawsuit later launched by the county.

In May, Cold Lake city council promised the team a three-year sponsorship deal at $100,000 per year in exchange for naming rights.

City staff started making plans to bring the team to Cold Lake.

"There was a great buzz about getting this team in Cold Lake," Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland said last week. "Lac La Biche needs to look at themselves."

Portage College, headquartered in Lac La Biche, has seven satellite campus locations throughout Alberta, including a small campus in Cold Lake.

The Voyageurs play in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference against teams from MacEwan University, NAIT, SAIT, Red Deer College and other post-secondary institutions.

In early July, Lac La Biche County went to court to try to stop the move to Cold Lake, arguing that the Voyageurs had a continuing commitment to play at the Bold Center in Lac La Biche, where they have played since 2008.

The county said its council had agreed in May to enter a new three-year sponsorship agreement that had been presented by the college in January. The contract was binding, the county argued in an application for an injunction.

On July 19, Portage College announced it had abandoned its plan to move the team.

"College administration could not justify the board of governors spending taxpayer dollars in a costly legal battle over who owns naming rights to a hockey team," Portage College president Trent Keough said in a news release.

The sponsorship deal with Lac La Biche County will stand, the college said. But to keep the team viable, Portage College will also need to raise an additional $150,000 per year, Keough said in the news release.

Omer Moghrabi, mayor of Lac La Biche County, said the Voyageurs bring prestige to the area and belong there.

"It's a high level of hockey," Moghrabi said. "The team has always played in Lac La Biche.

"When Portage College was started 50 years ago, we built an arena with the idea of welcoming a hockey team," he said. "The change rooms, the arena … it's the home of the Voyageurs."

Legal battle tough on players

Portage College student Cody Bird, a defenceman on the Voyageurs, said the legal situation has been challenging for him and for his teammates.

Players and coaches from the Portage College Voyageurs pose for their 2016-2017 team photo. (Portage College)

"I know with a lot of these guys, scholastic opportunities come first -- and hockey second," Bird said.

"It's hard to organize your life."

Bird is enrolled in the academic upgrading and environmental studies program, which is only offered at the Lac La Biche campus.

It's hard to organize your life.- Cody Bird

Earlier this year, he was told by his coach and the college that he would have to commute between Lac La Biche and Cold Lake to play hockey.

"I would have had to drive an hour and a half each way to get to practice … and get home at midnight," he said.

"I said to myself that I would start the year off like this but I'm not sure how long I would have lasted."

Dylan Sakatch, a former Voyageurs player, has watched the debate from the sidelines. He said the players feel like they're on the outside looking in.

"It's a guessing game for the players about where they're going to live … which is pretty ridiculous because the season starts in September," he said.

Portage College board chair Randy Benson said some players had signed leases for apartments in Cold Lake. He said they would be compensated for their losses.

"These guys are the base of all of this … of course we want them to play hockey," Benson said.

Bird said four or five players on the team signed leases in Cold Lake.

Hockey brings benefits

Cold Lake was looking forward to welcoming the players, Copeland said.

"Hockey teams bring a lot of revenue, and with the oilpatch down, any kind of stimulus is important." 

He also said the players would have got involved in the community.

"There was a buzz, too, about these athletes working with the kids in minor hockey so they get really embedded in the schools."

Copeland said the college's decision is disappointing, but the municipality will not be pursuing the issue any further.