Toronto imbroglio a lesson for city

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

A controversy raging in Toronto minor hockey could just as easily engulf London, says one long-time official.

The Greater Toronto Hockey League is immersed in a situation in which one well-heeled individual has bought an array of minor teams and is charging what some consider exorbitant registration fees.

It's a business. The fees, as high as $1,400 per child, are supposedly for elite coaching and training.

"If anybody got enough parents willing to put out that kind of money, sure it's possible," says Peter Feenstra, tournament co-ordinator for the Greater London Minor Hockey Association's West London organization.

Brad Pope, chair of the Greater London Hockey Association, agrees the Toronto operator was treating minor hockey as a business and jokes, "I'm thinking of doing it myself."

But doing it in the enormous Toronto organization, which doesn't have boundary restrictions, and in London are two different things, Pope says. "I don't think we're big enough for that to happen," he said of the six-association, 4,500-player local organization.

Helping drive the minor- hockey-as-business situation in Toronto are two factors. Many parents, particularly of younger developing players, are willing to pay whatever it takes to get what they feel is professional coaching and training. And any falloff of volunteers opens the door for entrepreneurs.

"It could happen if you don't get the right people," says Feenstra, who has remained in minor hockey long after his son graduated from it.

Joe O'Neill, who runs the elite London Junior Knights organization, has seen the Toronto entrepreneur's elite competition.

"As a matter of fact, we played their minor bantams here recently" he said.

"They arrived in BMWs with leather hockey bags and jerseys made by the same people who make the Montreal Canadiens jerseys."

"They don't have boundaries," O'Neill said.

"Their players are from Barrie, Oakville and other places besides Toronto. I don't mind telling you it was pretty satisfying to see the kids from our little town beat them 10-1."

London minor hockey's boundary rules preclude bringing in players from as close as Lambeth.

There's big money in minor hockey, but most of it isn't destined for the pockets of an entrepreneur.

O'Neill touched on a financial area different from that of an individual buying up teams and making money off them. In London, there is enormous sports tourism money coming into town as a result of tournaments.

He can't put a dollar figure on it but is working toward that with people from the Western Fair Sports Complex, site of many minor tournaments.

"We have three tournaments a year, in September, October and November, and I know the spinoffs are enormous," O'Neill said. "It's in the millions, when you consider all the teams and all the tournaments, such as the Devilettes' 140-team tournament in February.

"In fact, it's way up in the millions of dollars."

Pope and Feenstra spoke of a close association with Swedish hockey and travel back and forth between teams, which brought up another aspect of minor hockey finances that I've always found distasteful.

Teams going abroad have to provide what is in essence a free vacation for an official from their governing body, be it the Ontario Minor Hockey Association or the Hockey Alliance of Ontario.

"It's what they call protocol," Pope said, stifling a smirk.

The truth is, guys like Pope, Feenstra and O'Neill are more eminently equipped to oversee an international exchange than some of the people they're forced to take along.

There was a fascinating aftermath when a trip to Britain, for a West London team with which I was involved, was abandoned because funding wouldn't cover the OMHA guy in line for the freebie. He was caught with his hand in the till on another hockey matter not long afterward and was convicted.


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