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Kids’ hockey takes back seat to off-ice battle in Parkdale

Alan Davidson’s sons Callum, left, and Matthew, 12, (blue sweater) are photographed at McCormick Arena in Toronto, Ontario Friday March 4/2016.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This weekend, almost 300 kids ages seven to 17 will face off at McCormick Arena in Parkdale. Trophies will be passed out to eager hands during the final weekend of the house league hockey season.

On the ice, kids will skate and shoot, maybe even pass. In the stands, parents will cheer and grumble about missed penalty calls – all very typical for a local hockey league. Where this scene diverges is in the number of parents who would like to blow the whistle on those running the league.

Central to the dispute is the question of who gets to be voting members of the Parkdale Flames Hockey League, a not-for-profit group. Typically, these leagues have open membership. The Flames do not. A vocal group of parents say the Flames have closed ranks. They say they are being unfairly excluded from membership and feel that ice time at city rinks should go to community groups with open membership. In January, the city announced its ice allocation for the 2016/2017 season, awarding the Flames the same weekend time slots they have had for decades. This despite three years of complaints and the recent founding of a rival league that could have been awarded the ice time in place of the Flames.

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Lurking below the bureaucratic battle rests what some feel is the real issue at play: a formerly Portuguese neighbourhood that's undergone drastic change in the last 20 years. It's the old guard against earnest newcomers.

The impasse goes back to 2013 when coaches in the Novice division (ages seven and eight) were concerned there were not enough kids enrolled for proper games. Alan Davidson was coaching his son's team. He says when the coaches proposed a solution, league president Mario Aguiar was "rude and dismissive."

He says he was surprised at the reaction, but as the pattern continued he came to suspect a reason behind it.

"It's a clash of cultures. They see us as outsiders and they don't want to give up their domain. It was a Portuguese league originally. Now it's mostly new people. I don't think they are into the professionals and the artists and whatever kind of people live in Parkdale now," says Mr. Davidson, a professor of molecular genetics and biochemistry at University of Toronto.

Another parent from the Novice division decided to look into how the league was governed. Marnie Mason contacted Mr. Aguiar to ask for a copy of the league bylaws, something city policy says youth hockey organizations need to have.

Following what she says were four e-mailed requests, Ms. Mason received a letter in April, 2014, from Mr. Aguiar, accusing her of tampering. She had been kicked out of the league.

That same spring, the league posted a notice in the arena stating that the nominating committee, composed of three board members, had re-appointed the existing board for the following season.

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A number of parents had by now familiarized themselves with the city's ice allocation policy, which dictates who gets priority for ice time at city-owned rinks. Second-highest priority goes to "community youth" leagues. These groups must have an elected volunteer board of directors, available bylaws, be not-for-profit and "support the principle of community building."

More than 50 parents, plus City Councillor Ana Bailao's executive assistant, attended the April, 2014 annual general meeting. During the acrimonious assembly, the parents inquired about the bylaws and re-appointment of the board.

Following the meeting, Councillor Bailao wrote a letter to Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, a former deputy mayor of Toronto and the present chair of the city-appointed board that manages the arena. She asked him to verify that the Flames were meeting city requirements.

Before responding, Mr. Korwin-Kuczynski received a petition, signed by 109 parents, representing about a third of league players. The petition requested that parents be recognized as members that could democratically elect the board of directors.

Mr. Korwin-Kuczynski, on behalf of the arena board, wrote in November that the Flames had "submitted information of its not-for-profit status to the board" and so had "met the requirements of the ice allocation policy." He indicated that "the internal operations of the [Flames] are outside the purview of the Board. The Board considers this matter closed." The city's parks and recreation department has not looked further into the matter.

Mr. Korwin-Kuczynski did not respond to requests for comment.

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Members of the Parkdale Flames board of directors also did not respond to requests for interviews, but outside the entrenched opposition group, they do have defenders.

Joseph Desjardins's son played four years with the Parkdale Flames between 2005 and 2009. During this time, the nearby resident coached and was offered a position on the board.

"Some criticisms are valid," says Mr. Desjardins. "They are a bit insular and not open to new ideas. They are going to run the league their own way and that's that. But they are nice people, good people. They love the kids and stress fun. Nobody wants to coach the teenagers on Friday night, but [board members] are the ones there doing it. They work hard."

Mr. Desjardins, too, sees neighbourhood change as part of the issue. "This was a Portuguese neighbourhood. The people who are saying 'Show us the books. Why don't you run it this way?' are, in the main, not Portuguese."

Alan Davidson has kept a thick folder of notes on the dispute. He says he eventually saw the bylaws at a meeting in 2014. They state that club membership is open to the club founders and others who have been "admitted as members by the board of directors."

Parent Hartley Gorenstein says this restricted membership fails to support the principle of community building, as promoted in the ice allocation policy. What's more, he says it means the Flames are lying to the city on their ice applications, on which they claim to have open memberships.

Mr. Gorenstein has seen the application because last fall he was appointed to the arena management board. He says he was motivated to apply for the position in 2014 when Ms. Mason, his wife, was kicked out of the Flames. He agreed to speak for himself, not on behalf of the board.

"They ticked off the wrong box," says Mr. Gorenstein about the ice application. "They are not compliant. We don't know why that wasn't being reported to the City, but this arena board has the responsibility to report it."

He says his goal is not to force the Flames out of the arena, but to make sure they satisfy the criteria. "Twenty years ago, the Parkdale Flames got kids off the street and playing hockey and everybody was happy. But parents want to be involved now. How can more people being involved be bad? If the Flames can be open and transparent, we are happy to work with them."

Alan Davidson says he was eventually blackballed and forbidden to coach in the league. His two sons now play hockey at other arenas, but he hopes one day they might return.

"That's what's happened for generations in this neighbourhood. They say you always come back to Parkdale. It would be nice for them to come back to a club with a welcoming environment, where you can contribute and make suggestions and make it better. We should be able to do that at our local, city-owned arena. Other clubs are not like this."

Freelance writer Ian Merringer is a weekly volunteer for a spring hockey league running in the same arena as the Parkdale Flames.

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