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Parents now have the leverage in local AAA hockey debate
2024-01-30

My how the tables have turned.

A year ago this time, angst and anxiety were predominant within the parental groupings as the debate raged on with administrators from both the Sudbury Minor Hockey Association and the Nickel City Hockey Association regarding exactly how many AAA teams would be iced in each age bracket from U12 through to U18.

For the record, the overwhelming consensus in the parent group has largely favoured a single regional entry at every age, at least for much of the past decade, largely on the benefits of increased competitiveness for said entries given a provincial landscape that seems to favour the merging of AAA associations elsewhere in Ontario (and the general lack of competitiveness when the Sudbury talent pool is split in two).

Fast forward some twelve months and we have the recent coaching announcements that are again causing consternation within the rep hockey community locally.

Last Thursday, the NCHA confirmed that they were willing to remain with the current alternating format of icing AAA teams, requesting cards for U12, U13 and U14 (U15 would move to the SMHA), the flip-side of what is happening in 2023-2024. By requesting just one year leaves of absence on alternating years, both groups maintain their ability to re-gain the cards the following years (NOHA policy dictates cards are voided if not requested in back to back years).

On the very same evening last week, the SMHA decided to forego the gentleman’s agreement that had been in place for a couple of years, requesting coaching applications for AAA teams in the following divisions: U12/U13/U14/U15/U16/U18.

It took very little time for parent reactions to start spreading like wildfire – which, to be perfectly honest, I found at least slightly amusing.

With the freedom of movement guidelines that were passed at the 2023 NOHA AGM, the ball is now completely in the court of a handful of parents at each age group to dictate the likelihood of two local teams being iced or not in 2024-2025 in the U12, U13 and U14 divisions.

All it would honestly take is the top five or six players on each one of those teams to agree that they will meet at the tryouts of one organization or the other (column length does not allow me to wax poetic about which group should oversee AAA hockey in the region – especially since I am a strong proponent of a separate AAA board with representation from both groups that would cater to teams that are represented by youth from right across the entire region).

The larger the degree to which the top end talent congregates in the same setting, the stronger the likelihood that you end up with what amounts to an A and a B team on a local level. As anyone who has witnessed local AAA hockey in the past decade can attest, that second team is going to struggle to be even remotely competitive on a provincial scale – and even within northern Ontario, in many instances.

Think that I am simply selling local talent short?

Let’s take a quick look at how things currently shake out within the Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League, keeping in mind that the current season sees just one local AAA entry at all divisions:

U12 AAA: while the local entry has definitely shown signs of improvement and increased competitiveness of late, the fact remains that the Soo tops the standings (29 pts), followed by North Bay (24) and Sudbury (11)

U13 AAA: Sudbury leads the way with 32 points, followed by the Soo (25), with North Bay struggling mightily to hit the win column in this particular age bracket

U14 AAA: no contest here as a two-team division features a Sudbury entry that is 15-0 versus the Jr Greyhounds – of course, the bulk of this team also returned from the local entry that claimed silver at the All-Ontario U13 AAA Championships in Thunder Bay last year - so they are well aware of the benefits of sticking together

U15 AAA: it’s a decent race in the north, with North Bay (32), the Sault (29) and Nickel City (23) all less than ten points apart – all of which would suggest that taking that Sons team and creating two squads would have left both parties battling it out for third place, to be sure

And since the current U11 landscape comes into play given that those are the kids who will comprise the U12 AAA team next year, it is interesting to note that the SMHA has requested U12 AAA cards despite the fact that the association does not currently ice a AA team at the U11 age bracket. The two local entries right now represent the NCHA and Copper Cliff Minor Hockey.

Make no mistake – a carry-over of the current AAA structure into 2024-2025 does not mean that the local squads will be returning with championship banners from every tournament they attend. It honestly only means that they will give themselves at least a fighting chance of making the playoff rounds at most events.

The irony with how this will play out is that I am already hearing whispers that the local parent groups at various age brackets are seemingly not a whole lot better equipped to play nice in the sandbox than were the very associations that they so soundly criticized one year ago.

There are many layers to this debate and I do realize that this column is hardly an all-encompassing presentation of all of the issues (*see below). There is already plenty of talk circulating that Wolves owner Dario Zulich and the SWSE group would be very much in favour of fronting AAA hockey in Sudbury, creating that natural link with their brand and local youth.

That said, this simply won’t happen unless both groups involved feel they have a voice in coaching selections, financial decisions, etc… - which seems only logical given the fact that players are gathering from Sudbury to Levack, from Capreol to Naughton, and all points in-between (and yes, some from outside of that circle).

Keep in mind that those who created the Nickel City Association some 15 years ago did so largely to try and gain some leverage within the AAA hockey structure, recogizing at that time that the majority of kids playing on those teams were residing in the outlying areas (District 2 – as it was christened years ago by the NOHA) – and as opposed to families residing in either the old City of Sudbury proper and Copper (District 8 – within the NOHA).

This time around, the leverage sits with the parents – and it will be fascinating to see how they decide to use it (says somone who is quite thankful he no longer has children playing competitive hockey).

(* it is acknowledged that this column does not address a boatload of other issues within the scope of this debate, raging from: the need to cotinue to try and raise the overall level of hockey locally, the trend for players and parents to head south to play, the need for a better league setup for some of these teams – possibly interlocking play with OMHA teams - and many, many more)

Editor's Note: without the limitations of space restrictions on-line, I thought it might be worthwhile to also share a few snippets from a recent interview over coffee with NCHA president Gus Lescault:

1) the NCHA canvassed parents from A to AAA two years ago, with the results heavily favouring single AAA entries locally - largely because of the fact that the trickle down effect here is to make local teams at the AA and A levels that much more competitive when they battle the rest of the provice

2) the NCHA fully supports the branding of a single AAA team at every level as the Sudbury Wolves - "it is the highest level of hockey played in town," said Lescault - "but we also want representation on that association that runs AAA hockey"

3) there have already been talks with both the NOHA and the OMHA (Ontario Minor Hockey Association) regarding possible interlocking play to address the lack of AAA teams in the north - one can rest assured that this option is far less appealing to the OMHA if the Sudbury talent pool is effectively only 50% as strong as the current teams might be

4) the NCHA voted to move forward with the current working agreement with the SMHA "until such time that we can sit down and create a single organization to govern AAA hockey in Sudbury", noted Lescault

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