For hundreds of GTA kids born in 2011, hockey season could be over before it even starts.
New Hockey Canada rules announced last January mean players under the age of 7 have to play cross-ice hockey regardless of skill and experience level – which is hockey on a half-sized rink. It’s wreaking havoc on rosters in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) and especially the North York Hockey League (NYHL).
At issue are “play-up” players — kids whose abilities and skills have allowed them to play and compete with older age divisions. Its a common practice in hockey, and this year, it could be the downfall of several teams in the league.
“The impact is huge for our players, half our team is 2011 players, the other half is 2010 players,” explains Keith Smales, an assistant coach with the Duffield Devils and father of a 6-year-old player.
“The impact for those 2010 players is that they are going to have to be released and find another team and its very late in the season to find another team. I feel for those 2010 players,” he adds. Most team rosters were established and approved by the start of summer.
“He tried out in May, and he has been playing with his team all spring and summer,” says Lisa Andreai of her son Ethan’s situation. “He won’t be able to play hockey. Lots of kids in the GTA won’t be able to play because of this ruling,” she adds.
“Up until the last minute they still can’t decide how they’ll implement this,” says Duffield Devils coach Dulio Bertolin.
“They’re still arguing in the background and so 36 hours before our first game they tell us that because they can’t make a decision, that no 5 or 6-year-old can play full-ice hockey,” he says of the tournament organizers.
Teams that do allow those players on the ice may not only face future tournament bans, but bans for other teams in the GTHL.
“Notification from the GTHL that half-ice hockey was their only option for Tyke (an age division) was given to the house leagues in mid-summer, as I understand it,” says NYHL Chief Operating Officer Paul Maich.
But documents from the Ontario Hockey Federation (OHF) reveal the rules started being communicated last March – with more than a dozen followup meetings, memos and emails.
“Select” teams – developmental programs where teams play others of similar ability – thought they were exempt. They’re not.
“We had assurances from our clubs that everything would be fine and that everything would be resolved,” explains Bertolin “But in the meantime, my 6-year-olds have to be punished and not play the game.”
6-year-old Colton Lamming is one of those players. He’s been on skates since he was only 18 months old and playing hockey since he was three. He tried out for the Devils last April and made the team.
“I was looking forward to playing,” he says. Instead he spent the weekend on the bench while his 7-year-old teammates hit the ice in a tournament.
“Its not fair.”
The OHF’s Phillip McKee, a member of Hockey Canada, says there was nothing stopping Colton or his other 6-year-old peers from playing over the weekend. “We don’t have a problem with a skilled player playing-up, but that has to be cross-hockey (half-ice).” Team rosters were approved last spring and summer, because teams of 7-year-old players can play cross-ice hockey without penalty.
But parents, players and coaches of 7-year old “Tyke” teams, don’t want to change their game.
“For the more skilled players who have played two or three years on full ice, it is demoralizing, disheartening and unfair to be forced to play half-ice with rubber bumpers in a lesser version of the game they want to play,” explains Maich.
Cross-ice hockey focuses on skill development, by playing the game along the width, instead of the length, of the ice.
According to the Ontario Minor Hockey Association: “players receive five times more passes and take six times more shots. They’re called on to have to make more decisions more quickly, and are overall more engaged in the game.”
“We right-size soccer and baseball and every other sport,” says McKee. “Every other sport has been doing this for years. Hockey is just finally catching up.”
6-year-old players dressed for the weekend tournament carried poster boards in protest of the rule change. Santino Perez sobbed on the sidelines.
“He was recruited,” his father Leo says. “They came looking for him. Certain players don’t need to try out. They came looking for him,” But he was forced to spend the weekend watching from the stands instead.
“They gave us the announcement 48 hours before the tournament,” Colton’s father Mark Lamming says of the tournament organizers. He’s worried his son won’t find a team to join for the season. “Even if he is forced to play cross-ice in his own age group, all the cross-ice teams are full. There’s nowhere for him to go.”
“I just want Colton to be able to play hockey this season,” Lamming continues. “Cross-ice or not, he needs to be on a team.”
Representatives from Hockey Canada flew into Toronto over the weekend to meet with stakeholders to try to develop solutions.
The OHF says they will work to ensure that everybody that wants to play will have a spot, but many teams may have to be dissolved and many kids left without a team for at least part of this season.