Greater Trail Minor Hockey has expressed concern with BC Hockey sanctions of the BC Hockey League (BCHL) and its potential impact on minor hockey’s relationship with the Trail Smoke Eaters.
In a letter to parents and directors, GTMHA president Paul Laratta says, “Potentially everyone in minor hockey, all ages could be affected by the rules towards all BCHL members not being allowed to participate in any BC hockey league.”
Prior to its withdrawal, the BCHL sent a White Paper to Hockey Canada encouraging the nation’s hockey body to modernize its mandate and support a two-fold path to junior hockey.
According to the BCHL, Hockey Canada largely ignored their concerns, precipitating the league’s decision to withdraw.
As a member of Hockey Canada, B.C. Hockey is the head of all minor, elite, junior, adult and para- hockey leagues in the province. Anyone who participates in independent or “outlaw” leagues, such as the BCHL, will not be permitted to participate in sanctioned hockey within B.C.
The GTMHA falls within the sanctioned hockey category, which means any referee, coach, player or trainer who belongs to a BCHL organization will not be allowed to participate in the GTMHA.
Still, Smoke Eaters director of hockey operations, Craig Clare, is confident that the Smoke Eaters will be able to run camps and assist in hockey development, but says it also depends on BC Hockey.
“We (the BCHL) have no restrictions,” said Clare. “The restrictions in place are through BC Hockey.”
Clare says that there are still conversations to be had and clarity that needs to be made, but is hopeful that the Smoke Eaters strong relationship with GTMHA will continue. The Smoke Eaters are insured through the BCHL, and would run their camps independently, so he doesn’t think their plans will be impacted.
“Our insurance plan through the BCHL is just as good if not better than what we had with Hockey Canada and BC Hockey, so we can continue to run our skills development.”
At this point, BC Hockey restrictions say that Smoke Eaters coaches and players cannot coach or assist minor hockey teams, even in a volunteer capacity.
Clare sent a request to GTMHA asking for an exemption from BC Hockey restrictions in seeking permission to coach a minor hockey team, which he has done for several years, and also offered to certify as a referee for minor hockey.
“We’ve had a really good relation, and I think we’ve built a good foundation,” said Clare. “There are ways to work through this so I’m not too concerned.”
One looming question mark will be the availability of referees, who have been given a Sept. 30 deadline in which to align themselves.
Laratta expects losing referees to the BCHL is an inevitability, leaving a shortage for minor hockey. Senior referees will likely choose the BCHL, due to its high calibre of play and better pay, but will have to make that choice much sooner than BC Hockey’s Sept. 30 deadline so they can be included or not in the BCHL schedule.
“I know it seems early in the process, but for us (GTMHA executive) we are trying to plan a season, where we have volunteers in the way of coaches, paid officials, so we can offer kids what they are accustomed to getting out of their hockey season, and the tournaments and games not being cancelled,” said Laratta.
Minor hockey struggles every year to find coaches and referees at its U15 and U18 levels, and Laratta estimates that losing up to eight senior officials to the BCHL could be devastating.
“This will no doubt affect our younger levels as well because we had to have our senior officials work some U11 and U13 games last year to save them from being cancelled.”
Notably, an application form for the BC Hockey Officiating Program of Excellence (OPOE) this summer requires those who wish to participate only do so if they commit to referee in BC Hockey and not the BCHL.
“To that end, if you anticipate you will be participating in NSL (non sanctioned league) programming in the upcoming season, our request is that you respectfully remove yourself from the OPOE selection process to allow for the next eligible official to attend,” the OPOE form reads.
According to the form, anyone planning on refereeing in the BCHL is already deemed ineligible well before the Sept. 30 deadline.
The Times contacted BC Hockey for clarification, but has not had an opportunity to speak with a representative.
The Smoke Eaters tradition began a century ago in Greater Trail and has been intricately intertwined with minor hockey for over 90 years. Like most BCHL teams, the Smoke Eaters have built a strong relationship with their community.
“Many of the reasons are well documented on why we left, and I feel the reaction of some of the restrictions that are now in place, validate why we left,” said Clare. “There’s a lot of work to be done on the BCHL level, there are some road blocks that people and organizations are putting in place, but overall the reaction has been positive, recruitment has been positive, and I think our league will grow.
“And hopefully some of the restrictions with time and conversation will go away.”
For the GTMHA president, BC Hockey needs to ensure that minor hockey associations will have the necessary resources to have a successful season, and be able to continue its long relationship with BCHL teams like the Smoke Eaters.
“I’m not going to fight on the side of BC Hockey or the BCHL,” said Laratta. “I’m fighting for Greater Trail minor hockey.
“I just want to provide the kids with what they are entitled to and the experience they should get, not set them up for disappointment this season.”