The mother of a 17-year-old goalie sidelined by serious illness is appalled by the conduct of his hockey coach, who kept $8,000 in fees from her son — for a season he missed entirely.
"All he wanted was to play hockey," said Aline Maalouf, of Mississauga, Ont. "It just ripped me to pieces, the pain that he's in physically — and this is just adding to it."
"I had to have my parents help me walk … I was going through so many things," said her son.
Before he got sick, Kevin Maalouf thought he might even make it to the NHL. No top-tier Junior A team would sign him though, he said, because he's just five-foot-seven.
"I've been turned down so many times," said Maalouf.
His only option at that level in Ontario for 2014-15 was to "pay to play" with the Orangeville Americans, coached and owned at the time by Tyler Fines, who signed him for $9,800.
Coach 'believed in me'
"Finally someone believed in me. I thought really the guy believed in me. For him to say 'I want you,' after watching my highlight reels and seeing my recruitment profiles — that was amazing."
The Orangeville team is part of the Greater Metro Hockey League, widely referred to as an "outlaw league," not because it's illegal, but because it's not governed by Hockey Canada. The GMHL promises players a shot at U.S. and Canadian university scholarships.
"I wanted to play NCAA division one hockey. I wanted the scholarship," said Maalouf.
Before he stepped on the ice even once, though, the goalie's leg swelled up in pain and started bleeding. He got bruises for no reason. He's since been diagnosed with two serious conditions. Doctors told him he can't play any more contact sports.
"I have ITP [idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura], which is low platelets. And meaning you can potentially bleed out," said Maalouf. "I've had now close to 20–25 transfusions."
Early in the season, Fines had already cashed most of Maalouf's cheques — $8,000 worth — money which came from the young goalie's education fund.
The "pay to play" contract states fees are non-refundable, but the Maaloufs hoped the coach would make an exception because their son is ill.
Initially, Fines told them that wouldn't happen.
"[We] operate our hockey team on a budget, and at this point all of our money from players has yet to be collected," said Fines in a Sept. 21 email.
"We have found a replacement goalie for Kevin to continue the season, however we have yet to collect his payment in full."
Four days later, however, Fines sold the team. The Maaloufs continued to email and text him, hoping for compassion. In December, the coach texted Kevin's dad, promising a refund.
"Can you come to York U and pick up the cheques this week?" Fines texted. "You can pick them up sir." The family said that never happened.
The coach declined to comment on all of this, but did confirm to Go Public that he hasn't refunded the money.
"I've lost a lot of trust in coaches," said Maalouf. "We pay to play. I paid — but I didn't get to play."
The case highlights the relatively new practice in Junior A hockey of charging Canadian families thousands of dollars so their sons can chase the pro hockey dream.
"It's buyer beware," said GMHL president Bob Russell, who pointed out all fees are non-refundable.
He told Go Public that running a team can cost owners $150,000 a year. "The business model has changed. It has become a very expensive sport over the years."
Better players charged less
Russell said players on the league's 22 teams pay between $3,500 and $10,000 per season. He said the best players, those the team really wants, are often the ones that get "a break" at the lowest rate.
Only a few players, particularly those other teams don't want, pay top price, he said. On average, three per team later make the cut to play at higher levels.
"The business of selling the dream is very, very good in Canada right now," said Hockey News senior writer Ken Campbell, who wrote a book about that.
He said he thinks any family that pays $10,000 for a shot at a scholarship has been suckered.
"You could be putting a lot of money into something that could turn out to be very much a dead end. Because in reality it's the old cliché, but it's true — many are called and few are chosen."
"You don't want to be the one who tried to stop him … stood in his way," said Maalouf's mother.
In this case, the new owner of the Orangeville team told Go Public it is not involved. Russell said the league will also not cover the cost of a refund.
"It isn't our responsibility to do that. This agreement made by Tyler Fines and the family really has nothing to do with us," said Russell.
"We want to show some compassion for this family. What I will do — and what we have been doing — is discussing this problem with Tyler, and he has told us he will pay the family."
Fines also indicated to Go Public that he intends to pay. Aline Maalouf is skeptical, though, and said she has lost her taste for minor hockey.
"It's all politics. It's a business for them," said Maalouf. "I don't want people to go through this. I want kids to have fun. But sometimes it's not really worth it."
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