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The Shelburne Red Wings defeated Sturgeon Falls in a rare afternoon matinee 9-2 at the Centre Dufferin Recreation Complex in Shelburne on Jan. 17, 2011. Shelburne is a new team in the GMHL, a junior league that Hockey Canada has labelled an "Outlaw League." (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The Shelburne Red Wings defeated Sturgeon Falls in a rare afternoon matinee 9-2 at the Centre Dufferin Recreation Complex in Shelburne on Jan. 17, 2011. Shelburne is a new team in the GMHL, a junior league that Hockey Canada has labelled an "Outlaw League." (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Independent league stands its ground Add to ...

It's a junior hockey team comprised primarily of Russian-born players who are pursuing their love of the game thousands of miles away from home in this small farming community.

But to Hockey Canada, the existence of the Shelburne Red Wings and the rogue Greater Toronto Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL) is hitting much too close to home for comfort.

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The powerful body that oversees the development of hockey at the amateur level in Canada and the GMHL squared off here on Tuesday night for a Town Hall meeting to deal with concerns that the continued existence of both the GMHL and the Red Wings hurts the community.

For the most part, the discussion was tame in this town of 5,500, about a 90-minute drive northwest of Toronto, with only about 50 or so residents in attendance.

The residents' primary question was how the Tier II junior team managed to procure precious ice time at the Dufferin Recreation Complex from the local minor hockey association on Friday nights, when the Red Wings play the majority of their home games in Shelburne.

"If you're doing that, I'm sorry, but shame on you," said one woman, a past coach in the Shelburne Minor Hockey League. "My concern, is everybody playing fair?"

Rick Sage, the general manager of the Red Wings, said the hockey team followed due process with the town in seeking the ice availability and was unaware it was displacing the minor hockey association.

"We tried to be as accommodating as possible," Sage told the gathering.

The 13-team GMHL is in its sixth year of operation and its open-door policy when it comes to the recruitment of non-North American players has made it a lightning rod to Hockey Canada.

For the most part Hockey Canada prohibits non-Canadians from playing minor hockey in Canada, believing the system is in place to cater to Canadians.

Just over 50 per cent of the GMHL players are from Europe, led by the Red Wings, whose roster is comprised almost entirely of Russian-born players who are billeted in local homes around Shelburne, go to school, and play hockey.

The GMHL has been branded an "outlaw" league by Hockey Canada as it abides by its own set of rules and regulations.

It is a term that Marshall Uretsky, the director of communications with the GMHL, took great umbrage with.

"I can honestly say from my own standpoint the term outlaw… appears to be a discernible marketing term used in a derogatory fashion," Uretsky said.

He added that Hockey Canada exists to make rules and regulations regarding the administration of hockey for its members. It does not exist to pass laws, he said.

"We're an independent league, we're not outlaws," Uretsky said. "We pay our taxes."

Hockey Canada believes the GMHL benefits from the extensive minor hockey infrastructure while putting nothing back into the system.

Hockey Canada is doing what it can to make survival difficult for the GMHL by enacting policies geared to clamp down on what it views as the "proliferation" of independent hockey leagues.

Both players and referees who have participated in GMHL games have lost membership privileges in the national body and are required to go through a reapplication process before being allowed back in.

Hockey organizations that fall under the Hockey Canada umbrella have been told that the right to stage tournaments will be forfeited if those organizations are seen as showing any sort of support for leagues like the GMHL.

Glen McCurdie, vice-president of membership services with Hockey Canada, said in an interview that it is not his organization's intent to try to run the GMHL out of business.

"What we're saying is, we've got members that we answer to that have some very serious issues with these leagues that operate outside our system," he said.

 

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