Central Alberta will no longer be just a stop on the map for fuel and tasty treats at The Donut Mill.
After nearly 15 years without a team in the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL), the area is slated to be served again with an expansion team in Sylvan Lake for the 2021 season.
The region first saw a team in the league formerly known as the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) with the Red Deer Generals.
There were plenty of expectations for the team heading into the 2004 season but things didn’t go well over the next three campaigns.
In researching our upcoming story on @SylvanLakeWCBL, we went down a rabbit hole to figure out how long the Red Deer Generals were a part of @wcbleague. Wikipedia had them in for 2005, but it was '04-'06. Here are the standings found in @RedDeerAdvocate & @MedicineHatNews. #WCBL pic.twitter.com/ExjG83jqIX
— ABDugoutStories (@ABDugoutStories) November 16, 2019
The situation deteriorated to a point where the Red Deer Advocate reported the team was drawing less than 100 people per game and weren’t even opening up concessions.
“My preference at this point would be to make a clean cut,” owner and president Greg Tisdale told the Advocate late that summer when asked about the potential of folding. “I gave it a good shot and I hate to give up on the team, but I’m not prepared to go through another season like this.”
The Generals finished the 2006 season with 11 wins and 31 losses. Once again, the team was out of the playoffs and thanks to a request for an indefinite leave, they were out of the league. The organization was relocated to Brooks in 2015.
Left behind, central Alberta baseball fans would hear rumblings of what it would take to bring the league back to the region. The overarching question always was: who were the right people to make it happen?
That question might have been answered this fall, as the WCBL announced Sylvan Lake would be awarded an expansion franchise for the 2021 season.
Headed up by Hard 4 Sports & Entertainment Group, the new franchise received an early boost with town council’s announcement that Pogadl Park would be the future home for the team.
General Manager and President of Baseball Operations Aqil Samuel joined us on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast recently to discuss the development and the vision for when the first pitch is thrown.
Q: Why Sylvan Lake?
A: You know, it’s a good story actually. The owner of the franchise, Graham Schetzle and I grew up together out in Consort. He’s actually from Veteran. When they were putting together a plan for central Alberta, the Town of Sylvan Lake and the mayor and council really shared the same vision. It was Graham. You could see that vision that he was presenting to them and that’s how we ended up here and are ecstatic about it.
Q: Looking back on it, how long ago did you start dreaming about a central Alberta WCBL team?
A: Yeah, it’s been in the works for a couple of years. I’ve come on board with the group in February of last year, but I know before I came on board, there was quite a lot of involvement and quite a lot to do before that. But I would say it’s been a good two years to get to this point and first pitch isn’t until 2021, right? So there’s a lot of work to do here still.
Q: Were there other places or communities on the table or other options you were looking at?
A: Absolutely. Again, when I came on, the communities around central Alberta were all looked at quite closely. Like I said, it just so happened that in Sylvan Lake, the town and the mayor, really got down to the vision and really wanted it here. And we wanted to be here after working with them.
"It is a Central Alberta team with a great population base & lots of history in baseball over the years." For those who don't listen to #ADSPodcast, here's the transcribed chat with @wcbleague president @Kevin_Kvame about @SylvanLakeWCBL & more. #WCBL https://t.co/03hLOqzF5u
— ABDugoutStories (@ABDugoutStories) November 2, 2019
Q: Speaking of that vision, what do you have in mind?
A: We have in mind a stadium. We actually started moving dirt on Tuesday of this week. It will be 2,200 seats. We’ve seen the stadium in Fort McMurray, we’ve seen the stadium in Okotoks, and we’ve seen what Edmonton, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat get to play out of and we want something of that calibre, if not above that calibre a little bit in some cases. The vision is a premiere organization in this league, once we can get up and going. Within ten years, we want to be up at the top with the rest of these guys.
Q: Is it more than just a WCBL team or do you have aspirations and ideas beyond that, like an academy?
A: That’s a great question because we just did the business plan. Our vision statement was really to be the hub for baseball in central Alberta and to grow the game. Both Graham and I have a huge passion for the game and we want to grow that game in central Alberta and use Sylvan Lake as the hub for that. If we build that baseball culture up right from the top-down, it’s only going to help us long-term, right? So, we’re big fans of the game and we want to spread that passion around central Alberta.
Happy to report that the Western Canadian Baseball League has approved a franchise for Sylvan Lake in the 2021 season! Details in the press release below. Stay tuned for team news shortly! #weareofficial #WCBLbaseballinSylvanLake #wcbl https://t.co/NMZ6f7MEw4 pic.twitter.com/cG8KELFkd0
— Sylvan Lake WCBL 🇨🇦 (@SylvanLakeWCBL) October 30, 2019
Q: What kind of potential do you see in that market?
A: Oh, it’s huge. I did the business plan and was in shock with the population. In a 50-kilometre radius, I think the population is 244,000 people, right? Even if you take Red Deer out of that mix, with Innisfail, Lacombe, Rocky Mountain House, Bentley, Rimbey, I think there are enough baseball lunatics like we are that are going to really support this thing and watch us grow into the future.
Q: You mentioned you’re pushing dirt for the new stadium. What other things are right there, needing to be accomplished over the next few months?
A: Absolutely. We don’t have a name for the team yet, so we want to secure something in the new year. We’re just deciding on whether we do a “name the team” contest or if there’s another way to get to that. We definitely have a short list together right now, so if we could that going in the new year, that’s going to be great.
Growth of baseball is exciting to be part of at all levels! Welcome to @SylvanLakeWCBL coming to @wcbleague in 2021. Just flying home from @LittleLeague BOD mtgs in Williamsport where Cuba & China expansions were highlighted! Maybe @CCBaseballConf will have news @ AGM next wkend?
— Kevin Kvame (@Kevin_Kvame) November 9, 2019
I also mentioned this to Kevin (Kvame) at the AGM this weekend that the All-Star Game that will be coming up in July would be a great time for us to launch our uniforms and name our coach and really get going so that we are ready for 2021.
Q: On the business side of things, you’ve talked about marketing and getting the community behind you. How do you get that rolling?
A: Yeah, Graham really wanted someone on the ground here in Sylvan Lake. My partner, Christine, and I moved out from Penticton on September 1st. I think my job right now is to sell the game and to sell the team to our community and really find those stakeholders that are around us here that want to see us succeed and want to succeed along with us.
I was telling Graham that my job is to shake some babies and kiss some hands (laughs) around here and really get this thing built up so that we can get the buzz built up so we’re ready to go for the 2021 season.
Q: There’s obviously a lot of optimism when you’re building something new like this. What do you foresee as being the biggest challenge or hurdle to overcome?
A: We have a lot of work to do. We have to get this stadium built. Looking at this from a higher level, when you take the economy into account and take things like that into consideration, I think there are some challenges that are external but nothing we can’t plan for. We want to make sure we can handle those challenges that are unexpected once we get going, right? I think we bring enough baseball and business instincts where we have a plan in place to be able to handle most of those challenges.
WCBL team approved for #SylvanLake https://t.co/tnGeH6WhlN
— Sylvan Lake News (@sylvannews) November 4, 2019
Q: I want to go personal here. I know you’ve been heavily-involved in baseball in Western Canada, moving back here from Penticton. You have those rural Alberta roots and played at the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA). What does it mean to you to give back to the sport you love here in this province?
A: Oh man, that’s been one of the most exciting parts of this thing. Just being able to tie the loop on this. Growing up and playing baseball in Consort, Graham and I played together for Ray Brown and Dave Robb up with the Morinville Pioneers a hundred years ago and the Oyen Pronghorns in 1992-1993. I’ve played, I’ve coached, I had two Canada Cup teams here when I was in Edmonton.
To come back and do something, be a GM at this level is pretty exciting. And not to mention my son’s playing at PBA right now. He’s a freshman down there, so being three-and-a-half or four hours away from him is … I still want to pinch myself. Things are going quite well in that regard so it feels good just being able to tie this loop and see what we’ll be able to do with this thing.
Q: When you think about it from a higher level and you think about where you’ve been and how far you’ve come, what does it mean to you to be a teacher and promoter of the game in central Alberta now?
A: You know, I’ve always taken that role quite seriously. The game needs to be, as a coach and the guys who have played for me will always tell you, played the right way. As a player, I wanted to play it the right way. Now, getting to this level as a GM and to help grow this thing, we want to do it right. We want to make sure it’s done properly and baseball guys and baseball gals and baseball people will be proud of that and respect that. That’s a big part of what we’re doing here is making sure it’s done right.
Along with our WCBL approval last week construction started on our future home at Pogadl Park! #afieldandadream #sylvanlakewcbl #baseball #sylvanlake
Q: Do you have an idea or vision in mind for when you get to 2021 and the first pitch is thrown on the brand that you want the Sylvan Lake WCBL team to have?
A: It’s funny you ask that. We were driving back from Weyburn and Graham asked me how we can have a league champion in the first year and I was like “hold on, one step at a time!” But, you know, we’re both really competitive people and we’re going to have a culture of winning and that’s one thing we want to start right from that first pitch. We’re dreaming big here, right, so if we can get this stadium built and get to that recruiting process, we want people here who share those same kind of goals.
Q: And obviously momentum is a big part of that. You look at the successful programs here in Alberta and they keep bringing in quality talent because they have that reputation. What do you think is step one in getting that reputation off the top?
A: Yeah, we have to make sure we come off to kids that we’re trying to recruit as being a professional organization. And their parents that are going to be sending their boys to us. We want to make sure they’re handled in a professional manner, right? So when we’re getting kids from wherever they’re getting them that brand of Sylvan Lake will have to grow right from that first phone call to a kid and his parents. You have to be professional and we know we have to start there. And as we build this thing, it has to start from a solid foundation.
Q: When you look ahead to 2021 on the first day and the first pitch. You look out from the concourse, onto the field, what do you envision?
A: That’s a great question. That’s the stuff that keeps you up at night. We want to make sure that stadium is full for that first pitch and the town of Sylvan Lake is proud of what we’ve got there and the area is proud of what we’ve got there. We’re dreaming big that the opening day will be something to remember for years to come.
Q: Talk about the community aspect and the support you’ve received so far.
A: Like I said, I’ve been here since September and met a lot of people in town and filling them in on what we have going on. The feedback has just been incredible. It’s a great size for a community, with 15,000 people and they’re really going to be on board. They really want to support something that they can be proud of and that’s what we want to build for them.
I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed with the support here, honestly, now that I’ve been here for a little bit. I’ve been making some old connections from the baseball world which has been great as well. My phone and social media has been ringing off the hook as guys know we’re back and what we’re doing now. Guys that we played against way back in the day are coming out of the woodwork, which has just been awesome. I think building the baseball culture here isn’t going to be hard as the people of Sylvan Lake are ready for it.
Q: Finally, what are you most excited for, now that you have all this out in the open?
A: We’re most excited just to get going, right? 2021 is feeling like a long way’s away but it’s going to come really quick. We’re excited to see the stadium get up and get going. We’re going to be releasing those plans here over the next few weeks through a few different channels. Just to see what we have planned for the stadium is going to be a fun way to kick things off. And then as we get through naming the team and all the rest of that, just getting that excitement built leading up to that first pitch is something we’re really looking forward to.