JONES: Sylvan Lake joining the Western Canadian Baseball League

Published March 21st, 2020

Originally appeared in the Edmonton Sun.

By Terry Jones

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s little to look forward to with any anticipation in the world of sports.

But here’s one.

It’s not big league. But to me, it’s like a flower bursting up through the ground on a barren landscape and I can’t wait to watch it come to life and grow.

It’s the birth of the Sylvan Lake Gulls and the building of a little gem of a $4-5 million baseball stadium to begin play in the summer college circuit that is the Western Canadian Baseball League.

At the same time as the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball, March Madness, the Masters, Kentucky Derby and so many other entities announced that they were shutting down operations, this little bundle of sporting joy came into existence this week.

The team, slated to begin play in the summer of 2021, announced the name-the-team contest winner and revealed their logo and officially became the Gulls.

The Gulls also announced the design and construction plans for a state-of-the-art stadium and plan to be an entertainment destination for outdoor concerts and other events.

As is the case with the Okotoks Dawgs in the same league, a summer circuit featuring NCAA and other college talent with a 56-game schedule, a mere 28 at home, the ballpark is going to be the attraction.

Except in Sylvan Lake there’s also the beach, golf courses, boating, sailing, camping and other summer holiday attractions and they intend to be promoting to the vacation crowd to come to a ball game in the evening.

The owners are Graham and Jennifer Schetzsle who own and operate the Dryland Cattle Trading Centre in Veteran, about an hour east of Stettler. They were the owners of the Brooks Bombers in the same league when they got this idea, sold the club, and proceeded to put this plan together.

“My wife and I were motivated to take on this venue for a number of reasons including being from Central Alberta. We both have had a lifelong passion for all sports but most specifically for baseball,” said Schetzsle.

“We’re middle-aged people and the timing is right to enter the next chapter of our lives both personally and in business. The mayor, council and business community in Sylvan Lake saw the vision and the pieces have slowly been falling into place. It’s exciting,” he added.

“We’re on the southwest corner of town at Pogadl Park where Sylvan Lake has four slow pitch diamonds, a football field, an outdoor hockey rink and spray park and two soccer pitches. We’re taking over a corner where they had a U-18 diamond,” said Aqil Samuel, GM and President of baseball operations.

“Phase I is going to be a 2,200-seat stadium. We have eight to 10 luxury boxes planned with lights and a video scoreboard. We’re going to have an artificial turf infield and a grass outfield,” added Samuel, who grew up with the owner.

“We looked at what they’ve done in Okotoks and we think our stadium is going to be on par or better than what they did there,” he said of Seaman Stadium.

“We’re very much looking at trying to replicate the feel of the spring training facilities down in Arizona.”

Sylvan Lake, when I grew up in Lacombe and frequented the place was a community of about 800 people. It now has a year-round population of 16,000.

“When I did the marketing plan, the trading area in a 50-kilometre radius worked out to 244,000, taking in Rocky Mountain House, Innisfail, Red Deer, Lacombe, Ponoka and Stettler,” said Samuel. “There are more than a million visitors in the summer.”

The WCBL is a tough league in which to succeed because of how short the season is but it’s in the heart of Sylvan Lake’s prime time tourist season. And it’s not a fly-by-night operation we’re dealing with here.

They’re looking at a 40-year lease with the town. A coach will be hired this summer.

“Being from Central Alberta, Graham and I both understand the love of sports here and baseball has always been high up on that list,” said Samuel who has bought a house and set up shop in Sylvan Lake.

“The key part of that is going to be the stadium. We want to make sure the stadium is the jewel that attracts people.”

It’s with considerable anticipation I can’t wait to be there to experience the environment on opening day 2021.