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The Straight Edge: Stuck on the sidelines

Steven Vince won't have the opportunity to play at a high level this season after breaking a Hockey Canada rule. (Photo By Paul Sprunt)

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Steven Vince won't have the opportunity to play at a high level this season after breaking a Hockey Canada rule. (Photo By Paul Sprunt)

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” but try telling that to a teenager who just wants to play hockey.

Steven Vince is a stay-at-home defenseman from Toronto, but one moment of truth has cast him away from home and, in a bitter irony, without an elite team to play on.

Vince has unfortunately been caught up in a political battle between Hockey Canada and the Greater Metro League, consider by Hockey Canada to be an “outlaw” circuit. Along with the Ontario Minor Hockey Association, Hockey Canada has placed sanctions on players who suit up in the GMHL, rendering their chances of playing for a Hockey Canada-approved league – for example, major junior’s Ontario League – nearly impossible.

And this is where the 17-year-old Vince finds himself right now, finishing exams in Bracebridge, Ont., where he plays a lower level of hockey for the local high school team. He began the season with hopes as a walk-on with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. Vince was cut after two rounds and told by Sting officials they’d like to see his game mature – maybe next season, kid. That’s when he found out about the GMHL.

“My dad actually heard about it,” Vince said. “It was better than triple-A, not as good as the OHL. I tried out for Jr. A in Toronto, but I didn’t make it.”

So the 6-foot-2, 210-pound blueliner took his game up to the GMHL’s South Muskoka Shield, where he began the season. He had asked the team about the league’s “outlaw” status and thought he understood what that meant for his eligibility in the eyes of Hockey Canada, unaware a change had been made in policy.

Under current Hockey Canada rules, Vince’s two exhibition games and eight regular season contests with the Shield translated into a six-month ban, beginning after his last appearance for South Muskoka. That means he wouldn’t be able to catch on with another team until April 4, which is essentially the end of the season and therefore redundant.

Vince said he didn’t find out about the rule change until a fired coach from South Muskoka told one of the defenseman’s teammates. Vince immediately stopped playing for the Shield and did what he thought was right; alert the proper authorities to his mistake.

“When I found out, I figured I would just tell them how I didn’t know,” Vince said. “I thought they would understand, but they didn’t.”

Vince was banned for six months. Appeals to both the OMHA and Hockey Canada were denied – but only after Vince and his family had paid the two bodies a combined $450 to launch Steven’s appeal – and that’s why Vince finds himself languishing in a non-contact high school circuit below his skill level.

What really angers Vince is the fact he has heard of other players in his situation who simply made the switch out of the GMHL to other Hockey Canada-friendly leagues and kept quiet about it, thus escaping persecution.

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“I’ve heard that some people were let through,” he said. “If I could re-do all of this, I wouldn’t have said anything.”

But honesty is a Canadian value and Vince got pinched for it.

“Certainly there are hardship stories,” said Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada’s senior director of member services, adding, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Hockey Canada’s position is that the leagues outside of their jurisdiction – “outlaw leagues” – contribute nothing to the organization’s growth and in fact are direct competitors for sponsors, advertisers and even game-day officials in some markets, not to mention players.

“Our underlying philosophy is simply that Hockey Canada invests a lot of human and financial resources in the game,” McCurdie said. “It’s a little bit frustrating for our teams in those areas because we have barriers.”

But while Hockey Canada-approved leagues have barriers (a minimum number of Canadian players, for example), they also have the weight of a hugely influential organization behind them. Part of the problem in the Steven Vince case is that he was unaware of the penalties for his actions, but it goes without saying the attention from his plight will largely rectify that.

Does the GMHL not have a right to exist? I guess it’s a matter of buyer beware. But no matter who holds the moral high ground between the “outlaw league” and Hockey Canada, it’s pretty obvious the goal of any organization should be to promote a love of the game and inspire young players to achieve at the highest level possible – and everyone has failed Steven Vince in that respect.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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