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THN.com Blog: Debate over 'outlaw' leagues continues, Pt 1

The GMHL's Oro-Medonte 77's and Shelburne Red Wings face off in a recent contest.  (Photo by Paul Sprunt)

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The GMHL's Oro-Medonte 77's and Shelburne Red Wings face off in a recent contest. (Photo by Paul Sprunt)

Since 2008, Hockey Canada, which oversees everything from house leagues to Olympic teams, has refused to do business with any league that operates outside its auspices, labelling them ‘outlaws.’

There are a number of reasons leagues choose to operate outside of Hockey Canada’s jurisdiction. Insurance fees and coaching certification are two, but in the Greater Metro Jr. A League's case it’s about foreign players. Hockey Canada protects ice time for Canadian kids by mandating that at any level below major junior, foreign players cannot skate for its teams. Even CHL teams are limited to just two import players.

“Outlaw, that’s not only disrespectful, it indicates that we’re doing something illegal or outside the law; that’s wrong,” said Bob Russell, president of the GMHL.

Hockey Canada rules state that anyone who participates in an outlaw league after Sept. 30 is barred from its sanctioned leagues and events for the duration of the season and must apply for re-instatement. The rule extends to players and officials and, in its most draconian interpretation, as far as arena staff and team volunteers. The rule was challenged in court in 2009 and Hockey Canada has relaxed its stance some.
 
Things came to a head again this season when two boys, aged eight and 10, were threatened with the boot from their minor hockey teams for volunteering with the local GMHL team. The threats caused an uproar. Articles appeared in the Toronto Star and nationally in the Globe and Mail - CBC Radio devoted a segment to the issue. All were posted at GMHL.net.

Russell is an avowed admirer of Hockey Canada, but objects to what he considers its heavy-handed tactics.

“When you tell a volunteer stick boy that if you do it again you could get kicked out of Hockey Canada, that could traumatize a kid,” he said.
 
Hockey Canada agreed and the fracas involving the boys was resolved at an open forum in Shelburne, Ont., where the GMHL is headquartered. The boys were given the go-ahead to resume their volunteering and Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of membership services, made it clear the outlaw rule isn’t there to threaten, but to safeguard Hockey Canada’s infrastructure.
 
Hockey Canada has flatly refused the GMHL’s attempts to bring the two sides closer together and its officials and players continue to be barred from working and playing for other organizations.

“To a certain degree it’s a league that has chosen to operate by its own set of rules, but at the same time they continue to look to access our system at certain levels,” McCurdie explained. “And it is kind of bizarre that there’s this constant (back-and-forth)…with the very system they turned their backs on.
 
“They do not put any money into the development of players. They don’t participate in coaching and referee, trainer or any other development, but they love to access those resources free of charge as it suits them.”

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Prior to the import rule, Russell operated a Jr. A team under Hockey Canada’s jurisdiction, using imports to attract fans and compete with larger urban centers drawing from much larger player pools.

“I’m not going to say that there’s anything wrong with (the rule), but I don’t understand it,” Russell said. “I’m Canadian, we open our borders to all cultures here; we embrace all cultures here. The NHL embraces all cultures. Why are we putting up borders all of a sudden? It doesn’t make sense to me, especially given the fact we used to have the borders open for kids from other countries.”
 
When the import rule came into effect in the early 2000s, Canadian hockey was a little like the Wild West. Teams were free to invite and summarily cut foreigners, some of whom would then literally show up on doorsteps asking for tryouts with other teams.

“We were getting stuck with a lot of players who came over who didn’t make their major junior teams and the fallout was that they’d end up in Jr. A or B or even minor hockey systems on occasion,” McCurdie said.
 
“There was a lot of carnage there, if you will, from players who came over thinking they were going to make the top level and it ended up being other leagues’ responsibility to pick up the pieces.”

Part 2 looks at the reasons behind why league's like the GMHL say they provide a venue for young imports and others to get noticed by the next level, while opponents say the negatives are too large to ignore
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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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