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THN.com Blog: Debate over 'outlaw' leagues continues, Pt 2

Alexander Nikulnikov leads the GMHL in goals. (Photo by Paul Sprunt)

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Alexander Nikulnikov leads the GMHL in goals. (Photo by Paul Sprunt)

The Greater Metro Jr. A League is Canada’s largest outlaw league with 13 teams, 12 in Ontario and one in Jamestown, N.Y. NHL scouts have shown up at games and inquired about players, but the league is generally considered sub-par; its imports castoffs or kids from non-traditional hockey countries looking for better competition. Parlaying a GMHL career into a future in hockey is far from a sure thing.

“By seeing some of the names that appear and are playing in the league, I really can’t see the league being that strong at all,” said one scout. “I imagine that the imports bring up the level, but some of the North American players are just OK.”

Added an Ontario League coach bluntly: “That league is s---. Our philosophy is that our imports have to be better than local guys. There is too much of a competitive curve between leagues to waste (an import) pick on (a GMHL player) when you could end up with an elite player (from abroad).”
 
Bob Russell, president of the GMHL, disagrees and says the talent level in his league has risen to a level basically on par with that of more established leagues – such as the Ontario Provincial Jr. A League.

“NHL scouts don’t come to games unless there’s skill there,” he said.
 
And there have been success stories. The GMHL has graduated dozens of players to Div. III colleges in the U.S and one alumnus – Darren Archibald, currently with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs – signed as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks in the summer.

Slovak Matus Matis, a member of the Bradford Rattlers, was selected 18th overall in the 2010 CHL Import Draft by the Quebec League’s Chicoutimi Sagueneens. He scored three goals in 33 games for Chicoutimi this season before returning to the Rattlers, where he potted 14 goals and 21 points in 12 games. And Shelburne Red Wing Alexander Nikulnikov, who’s tied for the GMHL scoring title with 69 goals and 140 points, was added to the QMJHL Moncton Wildcats’ 50-player protected list in January.
 
But it’s the negative narratives, like the reports of recruiting teenagers to ‘Hockey’s Homeland’ to further their dreams in a non-sanctioned league where fees, room and board, etc., can cost up to $20,000, that leave a lasting impact.

“It reflects upon us,” Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of membership services, said. “We have to sit at the table with those other federations and answer to the fact that we’ve got leagues that operate within their own system and to why there are players leaving other IIHF federations to play in Canada and it has nothing to do with us.”
 
One Toronto Star story focused on a 19-year-old Russian playing for Shelburne, an almost-exclusively Russian squad recruited from Moscow and St. Petersburg by the team’s Russian owner. The kid’s parents virtually bankrupted themselves getting their son to Canada and it still wasn’t enough. The player was in hock to the Wings for $3,500 and only donations from Star readers got him out of debt.

“It doesn’t look like the league or the team did anything,” McCurdie said. “That’s one of our fears; there is a certain fallout there.”
 
Many foreign GMHL players are not in school and end up in small rural-Ontario towns that might as well be on a different planet. They’re also not always welcomed with open arms. There isn’t a league-wide policy or strategy to help them acclimate to their new environs and attrition is frequent.

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While Russell is correct when he says small-town assimilation problems occur in leagues across the country, the big difference is it mostly happens with kids who are Canadian and don’t have to experience a wholesale culture change.
 
There are also whispers about at least one ‘pay-more-and-you’ll-play-more’ policy, something Russell said he hadn’t heard of and didn’t believe had happened. And with teams in at least 21 locales in five years, there’s also the notion the GMHL has used the cache of Jr. A hockey to sell itself to communities that really can’t support franchises.

“You look at some of the places where these franchises exist, there are a lot of reasons why they don’t exist in our structure at the junior hockey level,” McCurdie said.

Russell said there are no league-wide guidelines on team placement, but that individual owners do their own due diligence – meeting with locals – before setting up shop.

“If the mayor supports it, the community usually supports it,” he said.

And expansion is coming. It was announced in February that a team consisting mainly of U.S. players will be added for 2011-12 under the leadership of GM Jason Warner, currently a GMHL employee. His blog at berecruited.com addressed American players and guaranteed exposure to NCAA recruiters.
 
There have been a number of GMHL franchise relocations and foldings, but Russell insists the league, as a business, is successful.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re in our fifth year and the GMHL is looking at eight applications for next year. We’ve never had this many applications.”
 
Legitimacy questions aside, Russell believes the GMHL is firmly planted in Ontario and growing in stature. There’s no doubt the league has made news and continues to look for growth opportunities. Whether it can do that in small towns with players generally considered to be second-rate is up for debate.
 
One thing is certain: Hockey Canada is staying away.

“I think that these are people who believe in what they’re doing,” McCurdie said. “I do think, however, that they made the decision five years ago to operate outside the jurisdiction of Hockey Canada. They made that decision in, I think, an educated manner and they’ve gone in a direction that they knew and understood they were going in.”

John Grigg is the assignment editor with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing on the weekend.

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