Jason Chatwood can’t help but smile … just a little bit.
With the provincial government’s three-stage announcement of opening up the province, the Sylvan Lake Gulls are that much closer to opening their initial Western Canadian Baseball League regular season.
“As long as everything goes as planned we hope to open June 18 (at home against the Edmonton Prospects),” said Chatwood, who is the Gulls head coach and recruiting coordinator.
“I know everyone is excited just to get to play and hopefully before a packed house at one point this season.”
It’s not been an easy recruiting season for the expansion club.
Chatwood spent a good deal of time during the winter months building a roster of Canadian and American college and university players only to find things drastically change because of the pandemic and the closing of the border.
As a result, the league announced they’d run an All-Canadian league this season, which eventually reduced the number of teams to five — the Gulls, Prospects, Lethbridge Bulls and two teams from the Okotoks Dawgs.
“The Dawgs are using their college players and several players from their academy who will be going to college or university,” explained Chatwood.
Seven of the league teams — Brooks, Fort McMurray and Medicine Hat from Alberta and four Saskatchewan teams — won’t play this season.
As a result, there’s a number of Canadian players looking for a place to play.
“We have a couple of players from Saskatchewan who normally would be on a Saskatchewan roster,” he said. “It’s important we give them a chance to play.”
Although Jason had to make an abrupt “pivot” in his recruiting, he wasn’t complaining.
“We were in communication with a lot of guys and there was a lot of interest (from Canadian kids) before plus we had already signed several of them.
“We felt good with our Canadian connection to begin with, it’s just that we had to add a few more to replace the guys from down south.”
Jason indicated even if the Americans were still playing their roster wouldn’t have been complete until early spring.
“We wouldn’t have finalized our roster until we could see some guys and what they were doing in the spring,” he explained. “So it’s worked out.”
Red Deer and Central Alberta will be well represented with — Cleary Simpson, Zach Olson, Jared Arnold and Cooper Jones — on the roster.
“It’s great to have the opportunity to give the local guys a place to play,” said Chatwood, who will see players arriving from across Canada in early June.
“Most guys have returned home and are in their 14-day quarantine. Once that’s over they’ll be making their way here. We expect them to arrive around June 12-13. We’ll hold a couple smaller group practices and then hopefully on June 14 have a full roster practice.”
Jason has been in contact with a number of the players and “there’s a lot of interest in the team and area and a lot of excitement.”
There’s also a lot of interest from the players friends and family.
“A lot of the guys’ family members weren’t able to cross the border and watch them live this season,” added Chatwood. “I know there’s a lot of excitement from the families about getting to see the guys live once things open up even more and we can have more people in the park.
“You can watch on your computer, but there’s a different feel watching live.”
Jason is excited to get the players in camp so they can get a feel for the community.
“We’re a new team, so there’s a lot of excitement in that, plus from what I know the guys are excited about being part of the community. We’ll run some summer camps, when we can, so the kids in the area get to know the field and the players.”
Chatwood added there’s a certain buzz in the community about the team and the new stadium.
“A lot of people are anxious to see the field and see the calibre of the team,” he said.
The program is much like junior hockey in that the players are mainly 18-22 and still have aspirations to one day play professionally.
“To a degree, it makes it like junior hockey,” said Chatwood. “It’s definitely an opportunity for fans to see some of the top young players.”
Chatwood, who is also the head coach with the St. Joe’s Academy, will be spending more time with the players than just during games.
“It’s an opportunity for the guys to work and sharpen their skills so they’re prepared when they return to school … be as ready as they can be,” he said.
Although the final schedule isn’t set Jason expects to play “36 to 40” regular-season games plus playoffs. The semifinals are tentatively set for Aug. 16-18 with the final Aug, 20-22
Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org