I cover a local Junior A hockey team. They are a member of the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League. Don’t worry if you are not familiar with that league, it is a rather obscure one. There are 4 teams located in the Toronto area but they rarely get any attention in the media. Leagues like the GMHL have been dubbed “outlaw” leagues, ones that do not play under the rules sanctioned by the Ontario Hockey Association or Hockey Canada. Players and coaches who participate in “outlaw” leagues do not receive support or benefits from the OHA or Hockey Canada and are often barred from taking part in their events. I don’t know if this extends to media types like me but if I end up getting turned away at the door at a Hockey Canada event, you’ll probably know why.
I bring this up after the Collingwood Ice of the World United Hockey League folded due to a lack of support from fans and the hockey community despite a 15 and 4 record. It got run out of town basically because of its association with the WUHL. Intimidation is often seen on the ice, not off of it. This was driven by politics and not the free market. I object the use of the word “outlaw” to describe these leagues. Rival is a more accurate description. Is the CFL an outlaw league to the NFL? If you believe in what Hockey Canada says about the GMHL or the WUHL, it sure is and no one in the football circles should be playing, coaching, or officiating in the CFL or face the wrath of those in charge of the NFL and its supporters.
One of Hockey Canada’s objections to the GMHL is that it allows players from the US and Europe to play in Canada. It may not appeal to those like Don Cherry who would prefer only Canadian boys playing hockey on Junior teams in Canada. But if you are one who believes European and American players are just as good if not better than our local boys then these leagues are for you. More than a quarter of the players in the GMHL are imports. However, the team I cover in Rama (a First Nations reserve located just east of Orillia) has none. Around three-quarters of the Aces roster are from Orillia, Barrie, and surrounding areas. It is a true Canadian Junior A team in every sense of the word. It gets good support from the community and it doesn’t take anything away from the local OHA Junior C team in town. In fact, the two teams have been able to co-exist quite well. I can’t speak for other teams in the GMHL but I know Aces’ President Patrick Geary has run a first-class organization.
While it is good to see rival leagues exist, it is not without their flaws. One objection I have with the GMHL is that new teams are entering the league under questionable ownership. One team in particular was owned by a Russian businessman and was made up entirely of Russian and Eastern European players. I don’t know if a small town in Ontario would want to support a team that didn’t have a local player on it. It has since folded. Another criticism is the officiating. This is not a GMHL-only problem but once you see how their on-ice officials perform it will make you appreciate the work of referees and linesmen in the OHL, AHL, and NHL. On top of that, the refs and linesmen in the GMHL appear out of shape. Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford could lace up the skates and officiate in this league.
I’m sure people remember the time when the World Hockey Association came into existence and it quickly folded after several years as they tried to compete with the NHL. It would not surprise me one bit to hear that those who want an alternative to the NHL also want these outlaw leagues eliminated. The GMHL may not be the best hockey league in Canada. Having seen dozens of their games, I can tell you the quality of the product is no better than Junior B. But I believe competition brings out the best in people and it is leagues like the GMHL that will force those in charge of Hockey Canada to improve their game or see their customers go elsewhere. So who’s really the “outlaw” in this debate? I can’t really tell at this point.