This past weekend in the tiny town of Hespeler, Ont., three kids and a coach were kicked out of the local minor hockey association because they participated in a program outlawed by Hockey Canada. The kids were six and seven years old and the coach was ousted only because he was the father of one of the children involved. His daughter was participating in the outlaw program, but the father got banned from coaching his son’s team in the Hespeler Minor Hockey Association.
If that sounds a little heavy handed, it’s only because it is. The local association suspended the children and the coach because it was following the mandate set down by the national governing body for minor hockey in Canada. The kids will have an opportunity to apply for reinstatement, on the proviso that they cease and desist from participating in this outlaw program. Oh yes, and they have to pay and Ontario Hockey Federation Appeal Fee of $300 for the privilege of appealing their sentence.
Right about now, there are people reading this whose reactions range from casting a Spockian eyebrow to wanting to throw their computer out the window. In so, so many ways, minor hockey in Canada is set up to fail by adults who can’t seem to stay out of their own way. They are well-meaning volunteers, but they run fiefdoms that are at odds with those who have made kids’ sports a business. And when those two worlds clash, things can get ugly. And that’s what has happened in Hespeler.
First the backstory. This past weekend, the Hespeler Minor Hockey Association announced that it had suspended three Initiation Program players and a coach upon learning the three players had stepped outside their minor hockey association to play in a private house league run by a company called The Hockey Loft. John Thomas, who operates the privately run program, charges kids $400 a season for one game per week and a practice every other week. Unlike the Hespeler Minor Hockey Association, which operates on the Hockey Canada mandate that players in the Initiation Program play half-ice hockey, Thomas’ program offers the opportunity for players to play full-ice hockey. Thomas said there are 20 players in the novice program and another 18 in the tyke program. It also ices travel teams that are in an independent league called the Ontario Rep Hockey League, which is considered an outlaw league by Hockey Canada.
“We offer development,” Thomas said. “This is the price. This is what you get. This is how we’re doing it. And the parents like it or don’t like it. It’s up to then. It’s like a cell phone. What if there is only one provider for cell phones? If Hockey Canada said, ‘As an organization, you can join,’ I might consider it. Might, key word is might. But what does Hockey Canada do for our tyke kids? Some of them are rocket ships. Some of these kids can fly and they have to play cross-ice.”
Well, studies have shown that cross-ice hockey for kids that young is beneficial to all the players involved, even the ones who are the best skaters. And playing on smaller ice allows less-skilled players more touches and gives better players the challenge of playing in confined spaces instead of turning the game into a personal track meet. So there’s that. And then there’s the question of whether or not a six- or seven-year-old kid has to be playing in one competitive league, let alone two, but that’s a rant for another day. But the upshot is that if there are parents out there who want their kids to have the option of playing full ice, they have to choose between the local minor hockey association and private enterprises. They can’t do both. If your kid attends a public school, he or she is allowed to attend private tutoring without being suspended. Even kids who play hockey are allowed to play spring and summer hockey, do 1-on-1 training and play high school hockey if they want. Thomas claims that Hockey Canada wants a monopoly on minor hockey in Canada and it’s hard to argue with that.
Hockey Canada is very clear on this. In Section 6.22 of Hockey Canada’s Policy and Procedures Manual, which of course every parent knows inside and out, it clearly states that 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,” the manual reads, “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.”
It doesn’t get much more direct than that. Thomas claims it isn’t up to him to tell parents about Hockey Canada’s restrictions. And the Ontario Hockey Federation and Hockey Canada weren’t even aware of what was going on in Hespeler until it was brought to their attention. So if they pay the $300 for their appeal, which would add to the $435 they paid to the minor hockey association and the $400 they paid to the outlaw league, they will be back in the Hespeler Minor Hockey Association’s good graces. Of course, that also means they won’t be able to play in the outlaw league to which they paid $400. That’s more than $1,100 for a year of hockey. For a seven-year-old kid.
There’s probably a good reason, perhaps a host of them, why Hockey Canada does not allow players to participate outside its boundaries. But aside from it wanting to preserve its monopoly on winter hockey in this country, it’s hard to see what they are. Hespeler Minor Hockey Association president John Murray, aside from putting out a statement, was offered the opportunity to explain his association’s position and refused, instead referring inquirers to Hockey Canada. And despite several calls to Hockey Canada to have this clarified, there was no response.
So we’ll just file this one under minor hockey craziness, a situation where a bunch of well-meaning adults have screwed up a situation so badly that all sense of reason is abandoned.