Article by Ryan Pyette, London Free Press Sept 8, 2020
copied with permission
When the Ontario Hockey Federation’s pandemic return-to-play plan booted tryouts and 5-on-5 games down the road, a couple of renowned minor associations figured they could still be saved. The Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, London Jr. Knights and Waterloo Wolves struck a working group that offered its own proposal last month, permitting evaluation sessions to let coaches choose their teams, allowing for showcase-style events and rallying for the return of AAA minor atom (10-year-olds), the entry point of elite hockey.
Alliance partners Huron-Perth and Chatham-Kent climbed aboard and the Middlesex-London Health Unit gave the thumbs up. But so far, the group feels like it has been pinned in their own end of the ice.
“We were hoping they would give it a look,” Karen daSilva, Chiefs president, said. “We never really heard back on the plan. We asked the Alliance, where do we stand? We get our hopes up that they’ll come up with something great, but most are very frustrated right now.We know we can come back safely and have hockey be what it used to look like.”
The game’s provincial governing body wants the group to bide its time. It sees tryouts as secondary to getting kids registered, back in the sport, connecting with others and having fun to promote mental and physical well-being.
“As we move along, there will be other opportunities for evaluations,” Phil McKee, OHF executive director, said. “We see this process in the initial stage as getting them tiered with appropriate level players. I get some rep kids are coming back quicker than others, but there are still some who aren’t ready or comfortable to come back."
“They may want to get through the first month of school first, then decide to come back. There are questions around tryouts in September. Maybe a kid has someone in the family who has a vulnerable condition so they can’t get back on the ice. Then, you lose that player"
“We want to leave flexibility because there’s a good chance our numbers will expand under the Ontario government guidelines (later). Then, we’re looking at different teams and adding kids to the mix later on.”
But at the premier levels of the game, there is a sense of urgency to seek development opportunities. Every delay organizations like the Knights and Chiefs face in offering traditional 5-on-5 hockey is an opening for private entrepreneurs that don’t fall under Hockey Canada’s jurisdiction and more than willing to pick up the slack.
“We’re going to provide a program, but we’re going to find players leaving us,” Kevin Gardner, the Jr. Knights director of hockey operations, said. “There’s competition popping up all over the place. We rely on tournament and tryout revenue to keep the cost of playing minimal.
“It’s also important to us that zone (groups like Elgin) ice teams because we are going to need someone to play against.”
The nature of competitive sport has always involved a tug-of-war for top talent. But the coronavirus rules have removed the ability of smaller associations — Elgin, Huron-Perth, Chatham-Kent and Lambton are good examples — to pull quality skaters from their nearby Ontario Minor Hockey Association centres.
“As a big city, London has a lateral system, but we don’t have a AA pool to draw from here,” said Dave Warren, an Elgin board member and longtime minor hockey coach. “The OMHA is digging in their heels and don’t want to issue permissions to skaters to fill spots on our teams. If one of our teams has players who can’t come back, we need to fill those. You worry about that.
“We’re stuck with the rosters from last year, but every coach wants to upgrade their teams. That’s what AAA is all about and tryouts are a part of competitive hockey.”
McKee is stressing the need for the Alliance organizations and OMHA to develop more cohesive partnerships. That’s the foundation on which the return-to-play plan stands.
“I submit they’re the experts on the ground, but they can’t be experts in isolation,” he said. “You can’t be a zone just taking from a local association and there’s nothing in the relationship back. If I’m a zone (like Elgin) and have 10 feeder centres that are partners with me, have I initiated formal conversations about how will we collectively provide hockey for players in our area?”
The Alliance group points to the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s plan to start forming teams and the Ottawa region’s bent on more recognizable play as signs of provincial inequity. The Ontario Women’s Hockey Association framework, which has about 50,000 players to 225,000 on the boys’ side, is allowing more freedom to skate in other associations.
“When you look at the inconsistencies being positioned as player safety issue, it becomes clear that it isn’t (all about safety),” said Greg Best, the Waterloo minor hockey president and former Junior B commissioner. “Otherwise, you would restrict every player to their public health zones. And in the (OHF) plan, new players can’t cross health zones, but old players can.
“There is a massive disconnect between the governing bodies and the grassroots groups putting together their programs on what’s achievable.”
McKee warns against using the GTHL model as a reason to start building rosters quickly.
“They’re doing it based on their different structure,” he said, “but they also have a challenge because there are three public health units within it. I’m not sure if they’ve got to that answer yet, but they are also starting very slowly. They’re just doing skills and aren’t looking at team play until November, whereas we have people who want to play games next week.
“The GTHL is forming teams, but when they get to November, they may have problems.”
The biggest concern, of course, is for the 15- and 16-year-old players hoping to be noticed for the next OHL draft or to attract the attention of NCAA schools.
“You have American teams that have already skated for a month,” daSilva said. “You have tournaments in other provinces. As we’ve seen, not everything is the same in Ontario. In the Alliance, we’re wondering how we’re going to showcase our 2004 and ’05 (born) players. We just want the same rules and privileges as everyone else.”
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