There’s a good chance you’ve probably never heard of Sean Kelly, but there’s little doubt he’s enjoying MVP status around the Hockey Canada office these days. Most days, Sean Kelly serves as the organization’s general counsel where he spends much of his time rewriting corporate by-laws, putting Hockey Canada in compliance with not-for-profit legislation and putting out the odd legal fire. But it was Kelly who recently made the biggest public relations save of the season for the people who govern minor hockey in Canada.
You may remember a head-scratching blog we brought you two weeks ago from Hespeler, Ont., that talked about three seven-year-old players and a coach being kicked out of the Hespeler Minor Hockey Association because the players were playing what Hockey Canada deems to be an outlaw league. That ‘outlaw league’ was a private operation that offered these kids full-ice hockey once a week in a loop that featured only two teams. It was essentially an opportunity for these kids to get some extra ice time and play full-ice hockey, while playing cross-ice hockey with the Hockey Canada program. The national body had nothing to do with the original decision, one that was made at the local level using arcane regulations that deal with outlaw leagues. The minor hockey association dug its heels in and offered the affected parties a chance to appeal, a process that came with a $300 cost.
Well, those players are all back playing in Hespeler, while still being allowed to compete in their full-ice league, which is a for-profit organization that is also home to the Ontario Rep Hockey League, considered an outlaw league by Hockey Canada. And it was Sean Kelly who worked tirelessly to find a solution, and he did so using Hockey Canada’s own regulations. Those regulations have a minimum threshold for the number of teams a league must have to be considered outlaw, and this particular operation had only two teams, which was below that. Once he found that loophole, the three players were free to return to playing hockey and the coach involved was welcomed back behind the bench.
“I give him a tremendous amount of credit because he kept pushing to try to figure out a way to solve this and he did,” said Scott Smith, Hockey Canada’s chief operating officer. “Without him we wouldn’t have solved this.”
As it turns out, this was basically a case of unintended consequences. Hockey Canada put the regulation in several years ago because it found that there were a number of Jr. A outlaw leagues cropping up and it felt it needed to do something to protect the players in those leagues. So it concocted Section 6.22 in its Policy and Procedures Manual, which states: “Any player who plays even an exhibition game with an outlaw league after Sept. 30 will lose all membership privileges with Hockey Canada and may only reapply for them after the season. If a participant makes the choice to participate in these ‘outlaw’ programs, they must understand the ramifications of that choice and that the sanctions described in this paragraph will remain in effect even if the league or team folds, or the individual is released, suspended or fired.”
The thinking behind the regulation was to protect players who were in sanctioned leagues from losing their spots to players who were in outlaw leagues and had been cut from their teams or had their teams dissolve. It didn’t seem fair to Hockey Canada that a registered player could lose his spot to a defector from an outlaw league. “There was absolutely no intent that this was going to impact seven-year-olds,” Smith said.
And perhaps the best thing that has come out of this fiasco is that it has forced Hockey Canada to look at its own regulations and do something to prevent something like this from ever happening again. It would be great if we could just rely on everyone to use common sense, but as many who have experienced minor hockey in Canada, common sense is almost always a casualty in these kinds of situations. Nobody comes out of this looking particularly great, but at the very least a resolution was reached and steps are being taken to make the wording of the regulations surrounding outlaw leagues more sensible. “We talked about that regulation amongst our board last weekend and we’ll have a solution long-term,” Smith said. “We survived this year, but we’ll have a solution long-term.”