Canmore, Alberta, is a small town located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. It’s home to around 14,000 permanent residents with a few thousand visitors each day.
It’s also home to an AJHL franchise – the Canmore Eagles.
The Eagles were founded in 1994 and were originally named the Bow Valley Eagles. They renamed themselves ahead of the 2001-02 season to the Canmore Eagles. For the next two seasons, they became the top team in the south after taking home back-to-back South Divison championships.
A few years later, the organization hired Andrew Milne as their new General Manager and Head Coach, following a two-year spell with the Kamloops Blazers as their Assistant Coach. Since joining the franchise, Milne has been able to guide the Eagles to 11 playoff appearances. iHs best regular season came in the 2016-17 season when he finished second with a 36-18-6 record.
They’ve also been able to recruit high-end talent with NCAA Division One talent like Alex Young, Logan Ferguson and Matt Forchuk all spending time playing there.
Last summer, Milne recruited another high calibre prospect to his program. He brought in a top puck-moving defenceman from Alberta named Dylan Witzke.
Witzke was an offensive defenceman and was recruited out of the Calgary Buffaloes program. He had a stellar final season of minor hockey, won the AMHL championship, and was also named the AMHL first all-star team.
Witzke signed in Canmore after receiving multiple offers from other AJHL teams, including five-time champions, the Brooks Bandits.
The Eagles rookie defenceman was selected to the AJHL South Division All-Rookie team after five goals and 40 points. He made the team alongside his teammate Devin Chapman along with Brayden Kreiger (Bowling Green State Univ.), and Tim Rego (Cornell Univ.) from the Brooks Bandits, and Brayden Morrison (Univ. of Wisconsin) and Dylan James (Univ. of North Dakota) of the Okotoks Oilers.
“Coming into the league, I didn’t really know what to expect at the start,” said Dylan Witzke about his first season in Canmore. “As the year went on, I felt like I got more comfortable and got more confidence, especially with the puck.”
Along with having a great hockey program, playing for the Eagles has plenty of perks. The major one, of course, is living in the Rocky Mountains.
It brings a whole different landscape to a junior hockey career. While some teams in and around the city are enjoying the city lifestyle of junior hockey, the Eagles are taking in the outdoors that Canmore provides them.
“I love playing in Canmore,” said Dylan Witzke. “I mean, like being in the mountains, you get so many privileges that you don’t get playing elsewhere. We’d go mountain biking instead of going to the gym to work out, or we’d go on early morning hikes with some of the boys that were pretty unique and just kind of variety and then obviously skiing too.”
Being what Canmore is, they can use that as a recruitment tool. Witzke mentioned in the interview that a big reason he opted to start his junior career in Canmore was for the additional perks that came with that. Teammates going out for bike rides, ski trips, and hikes in the mountains can only benefit a team’s chemistry on and off the season.
The Alberta Junior Hockey League was the only path for Witzke. After going unselected in the WHL Bantam Draft, the Calgary native wanted to prove the scouts wrong and used that to motivate him to get to the next level.
Now, Witzke is one of the premier offensive defensemen in the league and last season committed to Dartmouth College – a top NCCA college. Education has played a massive role in Witzke’s life, which ultimately helped him pick Dartmouth over prestigious hockey schools like the North Dakota’s and Denver’s of the world.
“The main reason was definitely education when I was looking into different programs,” said Dylan Witzke when asked if he chose Dartmouth due to the education level. “My parents are both huge on it, and my brother is huge on it too, so I just picked it up from them. My whole life, I’ve been told school is the most important thing.”
It was an exciting start to the season for him and his family. However, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Eagles hard and ultimately led to them not returning this March like the rest of the AJHL.
Friday, the 13th of November, was the last time the Eagles played in Canmore. They overcame a 2-1 deficit in the second period to defeat the Drumheller Dragons 4-3 in their season opener. They played one more game the following night, beating Drumheller again 6-3.
By the end of the month, however, their season was over. COVID-19 struck within the Eagles cohort and left many players and staff sick. Then, by the time they had regained their health, the Alberta Government placed new restrictions which stopped hockey in the province.
Upon their return, they struggled to find billets for the players after what had happened. With many of them having to isolate due to the breakout, families didn’t want to risk that again. Despite that, the Eagles continued to exhaust all options, including a potential relocation to Calgary.
Disappointingly, that didn’t happen, and the Eagles’ hands were forced into not returning for the remainder of the 2020-21 season.
“We had a FaceTime call with our GM and owner, and they broke the news to us that we weren’t going to be playing this year,” said Witzke.
It was a bitter end for the 2020-21 Canmore Eagles. Fortunately, a few players were able to find new homes; however, some players’ junior hockey career came to an end that night.
Luckily for Witzke, he found a home in Woodlands County.
The Whitecourt Wolverines came calling, and Witzke would soon be wearing the red and white of the Wolverines and joining him on this new chapter with his Eagles teammate Drae Gardiner.
“The main reason was they have an outstanding team here. I think we’re one of the stronger teams for sure in the league,” said Witzke when talking about why he joined the Wolverines. “They only had six defencemen at the time and offered a spot to myself and Drae Gardiner. We thought it would probably be best if we went together just kind of knowing a friendly face and kind of go in and do it together.”
Witzke has got himself off to a great start with his new team. In eight games, the Calgary native has one goal and six points to lead the Wolverines blueline in points.
However, the North Division is a lot different compared to the South Division. Most people would agree that the saying “any team can win on any given night” is 100% accurate for what goes on in the North. Last season alone, the 11 win Lloydminster Bobcats beat Sherwood Park, Spruce Grove and Brooks, three of the top four teams in the league.
“I find the North Division quite a bit more physical and more of a defensive game,” said Witzke. “Whereas in the South Division, it’s a lot more kind of high tempo rushes almost not maybe as physical, more like a college kind of style game which has been a little different.”
You perhaps wouldn’t expect such a significant change in styles in the North and South. Players switch from each division all the time, and maybe that’s why occasionally some players struggle a little more than expected.
You’d also have to imagine it helps defencemen out a lot—especially players with a similar style to Witzke, who love to move around with the puck. The North Division helps you to gain more of a defensive and tougher side to your game. At the same time, the South allows you to develop those extra offensive skills.
“Being in the north, I have definitely had to adapt a bit and kind of change my gameplay to a more defensive game,” said Witzke. “I think it’s been the best for me overall as a player just because I am learning new experiences up here for sure.”
Next season, Witzke is committed to playing at Dartmouth College. For now, he’s committed to improving his game with the Whitecourt Wolverines and becoming one of the best overall defensemen in the AJHL.
It’s a shame that he didn’t stay in Canmore as he had initially planned when he signed with them last summer. However, it might’ve been a blessing in disguise moving to Whitecourt. With the move, he’s become a complete defenseman after learning a whole new system under Shawn Martin and now playing the more physically demanding North Division.
Once Whitecourt gets back on the ice, Witzke is a player you should be watching into their next cohort series.