In hockey, some fights happen off the ice

  • Article by: ERIC WIEFFERING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2011 - 12:28 PM

Hockey games are decided by a varying combination of speed, grace, brute force and luck. But the future of the state's youth hockey system, which serves 45,000 kids every winter, may be determined by lawyers and judges.

The face off is between Minnesota Hockey Inc., the nonprofit governing body that sanctions all association and league play, and a privately owned for-profit rival, Minnesota Made Hockey Inc. This fight is over more than money. It also pits tradition against principles like competition and consumer choice.

So far, tradition is down by a goal.

In December, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim ruled that Minnesota Made is likely to prevail on its claims that Minnesota Hockey and a number of local hockey associations in the southwest metro area have unlawfully monopolized the market for youth winter hockey and interfered with Minnesota Made's business.

The case is far from over, and odds are that both sides will settle ahead of a trial. Even so, the preliminary ruling could embolden other for-profit hockey operations to compete more aggressively for the region's best players and coaches. And that could be good for hockey if it forces the state association to rethink some of its long-standing views on the best way to serve Minnesota's young players.

"There are a lot of former pros and college players who would love to get into the youth hockey business," said David Olsen, a Minneapolis attorney and hockey referee who wrote about the case for the Minnesota paper Let's Play Hockey.

In Minnesota, free agency does not exist for youth hockey players. To play in a sanctioned youth hockey game you must belong to an association approved by Minnesota Hockey, and where you live determines who you play for.

If you live in the Como neighborhood of St. Paul, you cannot play for Highland. If you live within the boundaries of the Hopkins hockey association, it owns your rights as a hockey player. Forget about trying out for Edina or Minnetonka, even if those are the kids with whom you play baseball during the summer. Unlike other youth sports, such as soccer, geography is destiny in hockey.

Brad Hewitt, director of Minnesota Hockey District 6, which includes 13 youth hockey associations, credits this community-based model for exposing as many children as possible to the game and turning out so many of the nation's best hockey players.

Minnesota Made isn't challenging the residency rule. But the lawsuit raises questions about how far Minnesota Hockey can go in dictating to parents where and when their children can play.

Founded by Bernie McBain in 1993, Minnesota Made initially offered specialized clinics. Then it began forming select teams to compete in spring, summer and fall months, before or after their association team's season. Eventually, Minnesota Made built its own arena with two sheets of ice and began forming teams that practiced and played in invitational tournaments over the winter months, concurrent with Minnesota Hockey league play.

McBain declined to discuss the suit, but in court documents he argues that he's simply responding to the demands of parents and kids seeking ice time and specialized coaching beyond what's available through their local association. Hence his decision to call them "Choice" teams.

Court documents suggest that Hewitt and Minnesota Hockey saw this less as choice and more as a direct threat to the quality and integrity of Minnesota's youth hockey programs. Initially, Minnesota Hockey argued that playing on two teams was too "taxing" for young athletes. That argument got no edge with Tunheim, and in an interview Hewitt now says the new rule was designed to "protect" kids on association teams from teammates who miss practices and games because of a dual commitment to Minnesota Made.

"No-shows hurt all kids," Hewitt said.

Last summer, District 6 instituted a new rule that prohibited any player registered with one of its associations from playing "hockey with any other organization, association or team during the winter hockey season, including playoffs." Violators faced potential suspension from their District 6 team.

McBain filed suit, claiming the new rule caused 40 parents to withdraw their kids from Minnesota Made's Choice teams. In e-mails included in the court documents, many express concern that getting on the wrong side of the state or local association could ultimately jeopardize their child's chances to make a high school hockey team.

Minnesota youth hockey is a big business. In Maple Grove, Edina and Wayzata, annual hockey association revenue approaches $1 million, most of which goes to taxpayer-owned ice rinks. Roseville Youth Hockey's gaming operations generated a profit of $250,000 on bingo and pulltab sales of more than $3 million for the year ending in May 2009.

Fees for association teams can top $1,000. Thousands of kids also pay to play on spring, summer and fall teams, and to attend specialized camps and clinics. Add it all up, and it's not hard to get to $50 million or more in program fees alone.

Joe Dziedzic, who played hockey professionally for the Pittsburgh Penguins and now coaches at St. Paul Academy, sympathizes with nonprofit associations, which have built storied programs on the backs of volunteers. But as someone who also operates hockey training programs, Dziedzic empathizes with parents and kids looking to develop their skills beyond what's available or offered at their association.

"Do we really have the right to tell them they can't do that?"

In opposing Minnesota Made, Minnesota Hockey seems to be trying to avoid the kind of tough competition that the sport itself embodies and rewards.

ericw@startribune.com • 612-673-1736

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