What's past is prologue

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:44 PM ET

And what a wild week it was in the big business world of kids' hockey. Police charges. A five-year suspension for a parent who allegedly choked a Jr. Canadiens coach into unconsciousness. Closed-door sessions with big-time mediators.

In Toronto, families can move to whatever kids' hockey organization they like, with those kids' organizations, especially the triple-A ones, preening more and more for their attention.

Costs in hockey are heading for a new stratosphere. As parents pay more, in time and money, expectations go up. Bench my kid? I don't think so. Many of these people expect service faster, better. And patience is wearing thin.

A PR company contacted us yesterday to remind us of a Hockey Canada parental behavioural education program sponsored by a car company and blessed by Bobby Orr. Just in case you wanted to write something on the issue they said.

TORONTO'S UNIQUENESS

As Johnny Misley, a vice-president with Hockey Canada, told us, what goes on in Toronto isn't reflective of what's going across the rest of the country. When it comes to hockey, at least on the minor hockey stage, Toronto is unique, he says. That was never more evident than this past week.

Yes, minor hockey is more than just rep hockey. It's a lot more than just making sure our program is better than the one down the street when it comes to winning and losing, and whose hockey gloves are better. It should be about not-for-profits, volunteer boards of directors, basic, simplified budget sheets for people who are busy or have short attention spans. It should be about pumping surpluses back into the club, we're told. Yes, minor hockey is more than just rep hockey. Just not in this city.

Stuart Hyman, the minor hockey mogul at the centre of the hand-wringing over entrepreneurship and profiteering in minor hockey, is no doubt licking his wounds after having more than half his hockey empire taken away. Hyman looked longingly at Michigan-based elite kids hockey programs like Detroit Compuware, Little Caesars, all non-profit, triple-A programs with a healthy dose of corporate support, where professionalism reigns over mom-and-pop, community-based models. Hyman looked to Canadianize all that.

He says he only wanted to keep the not-for-profit classification in place here, but run it in more of a businesslike manner. In his mind, you can't properly run a minor hockey club in an era where it is harder to find good volunteers. Professionalism breeds excellence. Have an office with a paid staff. Pay your coaches. Bring in expensive off-ice trainers. Open up the game more to visible minorities, and change the face of the game. Pay the bills, top to bottom, for lower-income kids who couldn't afford it in the big business environment.

Nice theory. Just naive and unrealistic in the high-cost, politicized world of Toronto minor hockey. As Garry Earle, president of the Scarborough Stallions, one of the clubs Hyman lost, said this week: Hyman was getting too powerful for the GTHL's liking, with too many teams and too many votes.

"So (the GTHL board) decides they better take measures, so that one person doesn't have all those votes, and he might not vote them in," he said. "And, geez, what would they do if they didn't have their director's jackets."

The league, of course, sees it another way, that it and the people who run it are simply in it for the kids, which is why they felt they needed to act against Hyman.

Hyman's representatives say he is now out hundreds of thousands of dollars, with little hope he'll get his money back. But don't cry for Stuart Hyman. Other people say the entire mess was a necessary cleansing, alleging that Hyman was price gouging. Minor hockey is no place for the business-like approach. And Hyman's stubborn lack of transparency about the finances of his clubs gives the impression he was profiteering.

"If he's truly in it for the kids, as he claims, then his position isn't understandable," said Harvey Shapiro, president of the Jr. Canadiens, one of the teams Hyman had an interest in. Hyman resigned that position this past week.

"Somewhere along the line he saw it as a business, and I don't see it that way. I don't believe in a for-profit model. He saw an opportunity to provide a constructive program, but a program that was designed to elicit as much money as he could from parents. People have the expectation of paying more for triple-A, but not in single-A and double-A, where kids play for different purposes, where there's not the same degree of skill. Unfortunately, (Hyman) started off with noble intentions. Somewhere along the line it just got hijacked."

The GTHL, meanwhile, is banking that all of this will quietly slip away, and the spotlight on an organization that's not used to it will diminish somewhat. They won the battle for the not-for-profit model, they say, now you clubs out there, you go carry it out.

Don't count on it. Mom and pop love the game no less than Hyman, they just can't afford it, in money and or time commitment. Not in Toronto, anyway. Quoting Walter Gretzky about the insanity of it all is fine and good, but the Walter Gretzky era, at least in this city with its mind-numbing, $300-per-hour private ice costs, and $300 synergy sticks, and its off-ice high-performance trainers, sleeps with the dinosaurs.

In a diminishing volunteer system, often with single parents balancing full-time jobs, budgets get messed up. Peter Stewart, president of the Leaside Kings, says the Kings were $40,000 in the pit before Hyman came in to bail them out. He sees no reason the Kings won't find themselves in that position again in this current climate, and wonders where the next deep-pocket wannabe messiah will come from.

No one has any answers.


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