Bantam hockey team ousted from league following dispute over cancelled game

Hockey season is over but parents, coaches and players in Grande Cache are still angry about a missed game, the failed attempts to reschedule it, and the league’s decision to boot a team just a few weeks before playoffs.

Grande Cache Minor Hockey Association plans to leave All Peace Hockey League

Hockey season ended early this year for the Grande Cache Rockies' bantam squad. The team was suspended for the rest of the season over a scheduling dispute between parents and the All Peace Hockey League. (Robert Scott Photography)

All it took was one missed game to ruin an entire hockey season for a bantam team in northwestern Alberta.

The hockey season is now over but parents, coaches and players in Grande Cache, Alta., are still angry about the missed game, failed attempts to reschedule it, and the decision of the All Peace Hockey League to boot a team out just a few weeks before playoffs.

"They had a good shot to win it and it got taken away from them for absolutely no reason," said Lee Fearnside, head coach of the Grande Cache Rockies.

Because of what happened, the Grande Cache Minor Hockey Association plans to leave the league, and some of the players on the team are so disheartened that they might not play next year.   

Conflict starts with absent official

On Jan. 26, which was a Saturday, the Rockies travelled to Red Earth Creek, Alta., arriving at the arena at about 5 p.m. They were to scheduled play against host team Loon River in a game scheduled for 6 p.m., as well as a second game scheduled for the following day.

At game time, only one official was present instead of the two that are required. 

"There's body contact, there's lots of physical play, and that's just too much for one referee, especially in the bantam division," he told CBC News. Bantam level players are between the ages of 13 and 15.

Loon River tried to find a solution but after two hours at the arena, the Rockies left without playing the game.

Later that night, Loon River proposed a double-header the next day to make up for it.

The Grande Cache coaches declined, saying they lacked time for two games the next day. Grande Cache and Red Earth Creek are more than 500 kilometres apart — a six-hour drive — and some of the players had provincial exams the following day.

The Grande Cache teams also thought they had the league's constitution on their side. According to the document, games must have at least two certified officials and a host team can be fined $250 for failing to meet that requirement. Cancelling a game due to no referees results in a fine between $500 and $1,000.

"Points will be forfeited to the visiting team," states the constitution, which is dated May 2017. The document adds: "Teams agreeing to reschedule the game would nullify the need for the forfeit and fine."

So on Sunday, after beating Loon River 18-4, the team drove home to Grande Cache.

Rescheduling attempts fail

The league and Loon River's hockey association tried to reschedule the missed game, but Grande Cache parents declined two proposed options for the following weekend, citing undue hardship such as hotel costs and missed wages.

Then on Feb. 7, the league suspended the Rockies for the remainder of the season and fined the Grande Cache Minor Hockey Association $1,000.

League president Peter Burletoff declined an interview request from CBC News. In an email to the Grande Cache Hockey Association's president, he wrote that the team could have avoided rescheduling by playing their next game with Loon River for double points — an option parents didn't realize was available.

"The APHL takes these matters very seriously and sincerely hopes that any future APHL league games will not be refused to be played," Burletoff wrote.

Grande Cache's minor hockey association appealed the decision but learned on Feb. 16 that the appeal committee had upheld Burletoff's decision.

In a letter to the Grande Cache minor hockey association's president, APHL vice-president Davy Peters mentioned the league's protocol, which instructs coaches and managers to call a league representative when problems occur.

"Unfortunately, Grande Cache Minor Hockey Association did not follow this protocol," Peters wrote.

Parent contacts Hockey Alberta

Kevin Macrae, Hockey Alberta's director of hockey operations, said a parent in Grande Cache notified the governing body about the dispute.

After losing their appeal, the hockey association could have gone through Hockey Alberta's appeal process, Macrae said, but that likely wouldn't have concluded in time for playoffs.

Macrae said scheduling conflicts happen sometimes, but rarely progress to the point of suspension.

"The team did make an error," he said. "Was it a big enough error to stop them from playing in the playoffs? That's not my decision to make."

To prevent a future dispute, parents and league executives could consider rewriting their own rules, he said.

Players consider leaving the sport

The league's decision hit players the hardest, said Fearnside, who has a son on the team.

"When we first told him that the season was over, he got teary-eyed and he came up and said, 'Dad, why? Why are we suspended? What did we do wrong?' And I said 'Jayce, buddy, I honestly can't answer that because I don't even know.'"

Justin Carter, vice-president of the GCMHA, said players have blamed themselves for what happened. Some have decided not to play hockey next year.

"It angers me quite a bit," he said.

The team plans to leave the All Peace Hockey League and apply to join another league for the 2019-2020 season.


Madeleine Cummings is a digital associate producer who produces stories for CBC Edmonton's website and its afternoon radio show, Radio Active.


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