SASKATOON -- All of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) coaches recently met in Nipawin to discuss a major topic – keeping players in Saskatchewan.

“It’s a pretty important topic for our members’ teams. Obviously, we want to keep Sask. kids in the province,” said Estevan Bruins head coach Jason Tatarnic, who was in Nipawin. 

Players can get drawn to the other leagues which record a higher total NCAA Division 1 scholarship count, like the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). Jimmy Lambert who played for the Saskatoon Contacts U18 AAA program is one of them.

“I’m forever thankful to the Vernon Vipers and the BCHL for the opportunity they’ve given to me to come down to the University of Michigan," Lambert said.

Lambert is currently entering his senior year with the Wolverines. He opted for the BCHL after his final year of U18 AAA hockey in Saskatchewan.

“We got to see a couple rinks and it’s just a beautiful place,” Lambert said. “You look at the (NCAA scholarship) numbers, I think the year I graduated from the BCHL there were like 150 players that ended up moving on to college.”

The SJHL is doing what it can do to retain players like Lambert in Saskatchewan. President of the SJHL Bill Chow said not every player’s experience ends up like his when they head to other leagues.

“The majority of players that leave Saskatchewan and go to other provinces to play, at some point in time they end up returning back to the SJHL,” Chow said. “Which is good but at the end of the day there is a lot of cost to the players and the parents as well as the individual teams when they require those rights.”

By comparison for the 2020-21 season, the SJHL committed 45 players to the collegiate ranks. The BCHL boasting a total of 107, according to the league’s website.

“I think parents have to do their research of where the scholarships come from,” Chow said.

Before accepting his position with the Estevan Bruins, Jason Tatranic coached the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs. He said he agrees with Chow that although the BCHL has more scholarship players, there’s more than what meets the eye.

“Players are walking into that league with scholarships in hand. Probably 50 per cent of the time.”

A step Tatarnic is taking with his Bruins is signing younger players in 17-year-old Caelan Fitzpatric, 17-year-old Keagna Little and 16-year-old Owen Simmons.

“We believe if we can have some young guys each year we believe we will be able to keep our Sask. guys in the province for our organization.”

Over the years Tatarnic’s was able to send several of his Chilliwack Chiefs players to NCAA powerhouses like the University of North Dakota, University of Denver, Providence College, and St.Cloud State University.

He feels players suiting up in the SJHL have those same opportunities.

“There’s some very high-end players that go to the Western Hockey League from Saskatchewan and all it takes is a couple of them to decide 'I want to go the college route,'" Tatarnic said. “North Dakota arguably one of the best programs in the country, they always pop their head in here and take a look.”

North Dakota entered the 2021 NCAA tournament as the number one ranked team. Former Melfort Mustangs forward Carson Albrecht was on their roster. North Dakota was in the same region as Jimmy Lambert’s Michigan Wolverines, but COVID-19 tournament protocols had Michigan forfeit a game that could have pinned the two teams against each other.

Lambert said he feels if you’re good enough, they will come find you.

“You gotta go to a place that's best for you and it’s all about opportunity,” Lambert said. “When you’re sitting down with the coaches, you got get a good grasp of what your opportunity is like with those individual programs.”

The SJHL regular season is set to begin on September 24th.