State of hockey shocks

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

Maybe it takes an outsider to capture the true essence of the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

"It's ridiculous," said Jeff O'Neill, who grew up in King City, beyond the reach of the GTHL.

In the absence of anything more productive to do, like play for the Carolina Hurricanes, O'Neill sat in on the panel yesterday afternoon on a minor hockey townhall meeting at the Armenia Youth Centre in North York.

The GTHL is the world's largest hockey organization and just now it is the world's most battered and bruised hockey association. For the most part, these seem to be self-inflicted wounds.

O'Neill's pointed comment came in response to a story told by a father with three children playing for various teams in the GTHL. He had a boy playing juvenile house league hockey, another playing AAA minor bantam and a daughter. He is paying a total of about $3,000 in registration fees this season without ever seeing an accounting of where the money is spent and that's outrageous enough.

What really chafes, though, is the GTHL's irritating policy of charging everyone $5 who walks through the doors of its arenas. That includes the players.

"When I go to games played by my 19-year-old and my 13-year-old at two different rinks, and if my wife wants to come, it amounts to $35 or $40 in one day, just to get into the rink," said the father.

"I think I'm getting ripped off."

John Gardner, the czar of the GTHL for the past quarter-century, tried to explain the costs but his explanation raises more questions than it answers.

He said that the $5 admission fee is used to pay the cost of ice time. He said that every hour of ice costs between $140 and $250. But the math doesn't work. And, of course, the parents never get to see a financial report.

Assuming there are 15 players on each team and assuming that most players have at least one parent on hand and often two, that adds up to a minimum 60 paying customers for each game. Often-times, there would be more.

Not long ago, I went to a Major Bantam game at the York Ice Gardens. There were at least 100 people there, all charged $5.

Transparency and dramatic increases in the cost of playing hockey are two of the hot-button issues just now. Both issues are corollaries of the No. 1 concern: multiple ownership of teams.

Stu Hyman, who owns or is at least part-owner of 93 teams in the GTHL, has become the lightning rod. He has jacked up registration fees and provides no evidence to parents of where their money is going. It occurs to me, though, that as suspicious as I would be of forking over $1,599 to play for one of his Triple-A teams, if I willingly do so, then I'm the dope, not him.

Coaches are another huge issue, especially in a league where some of them are pulling down $25,000 to guide the hockey fortunes of pre-teens.

"There are far too many people coaching to win rather than trying to develop good people and players with high self-esteem," said Greg Millen, a former NHL goalie and now a Hockey Night in Canada commentator. He's also the father of a Triple-A player in the Peterborough association.

"When coaches are being paid," said Millen, "it becomes about business and anytime you have business based around kids, sooner or later you're going to have abuse."

The silent enablers in the background are the delusional parents who think this is all "leading somewhere." They engage in a conspiracy of silence lest they run afoul of the "system."

"The biggest problem in minor hockey today is parents with unrealistic expectations of where they can go and how they can get there," said Hugh Ross, president of the Wexford Raiders Triple-A hockey program. "No one seems to be playing the game just for fun any more."

For O'Neill, the 21/2-hour symposium was a true revelation. He seemed genuinely shocked by much of what he heard from the participants.

"When I was growing up, hockey was a leisure sport," he said. "You played the game, had fun, got on the bus and the big deal was a can of pop and a piece of pizza."

He had no idea what was going on in the hockey jungle, just a few miles to the south.

"I'm so glad I grew up north of Steeles Avenue," said O'Neill. "I play in the best league in the world and I don't have to deal with anything like this drama. I can't believe how today's kids handle this."


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