Throw the book at league’s code-red violators
The initial crime by the Winnipeg Blues and Winnipeg Freeze was bad enough: a cold, calculated disregard for public health protocols in the middle of a global pandemic that is as brazen as you’ll see.
The pathetic attempt to cover it up, using teenage hockey players as pawns, was even worse. They might have got away with it, too, if not for an anonymous whistleblower who contacted local media outlets earlier this week with damning evidence of secret, illegal hockey practices taking place outside the city as our COVID-19 infection and death numbers continue to soar.
When caught red-handed, the so-called adults in the room scattered like cockroaches.
My Free Press colleague, Taylor Allen, got the silent treatment as he sought comment from Manitoba Junior Hockey League commissioner Kevin Saurette, Blues and Freeze president Matt Cockell, Blues head coach and general manager Taras McEwen, Freeze head coach and GM Josh Green and Laker Hockey Academy instructor Larry Woo.
Nice example of leadership and accountability you’re setting there, fellas.
This shameful stunt put everyone at risk and reeks of privilege and entitlement, which is all too prevalent in sport. And it also sent a message to members of the public, many whom are making enormous personal sacrifices and suffering great loss these days, that they will play by their own set of rules, thank you very much.
The provincial government, along with Hockey Manitoba, need to send a message of their own by taking swift, decisive action and lowering the boom on those involved. Hefty fines and lengthy suspensions would be a good start.
If a single positive test ends up being linked to this, outright banishment for the worst offenders wouldn’t be severe enough punishment.
Late last month, when new restrictions were initially announced and hockey came to a screeching halt in the city, a friend of mine who has long been involved in minor hockey predicted this would happen.
“Watch some teams try to sneak out of the city,” he said, even though provincial hockey officials and the MJHL were clear in their wording that such activity is not allowed.
“No way. They wouldn’t be that stupid,” I replied, suggesting he was overly jaded about the whole thing.
Don’t I look like the stupid one now. Because as we’ve come to learn, the Blues and Freeze have been surreptitiously getting around existing code-red restrictions that were supposed to shut them down entirely by booking ice at the South Interlake Rec Centre’s Sunova Arena under the name “Laker Academy,” a Winnipeg-based organization that runs youth hockey camps out of Southdale Community Centre.
“We raised our eyes when we heard (Monday) there was a skills session with Larry Woo and Laker Academy in Warren,” a parent of one of the players involved told me Wednesday. “I asked him if that was allowed. He said it must be or they wouldn’t do it I guess,” he said.
When the man and his wife suggested it might not be a good idea to go, their son said he “didn’t want to get benched.”
“Kids didn’t have a lot of choice. Coach tells you to show up, well, you show up. Or you’re in the doghouse,” said the parent. “You know your hockey. Coaches at this age have all the power. And if a parent said ‘You can’t go!’, they become a problem parent. Most of those kids are adults. But I am a little dumbfounded by the whole thing.”
Therein lies the problem, showing once again why so many terrible things that happen in hockey are just swept under the carpet, the result of an often toxic culture where nobody wants to speak up or ruffle any feathers for fear of being branded an outcast.
The power brokers think they can get away with this sort of thing, because they usually do.
A week ago, Sunova Arena’s online calendar showed the Blues booked from 2 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday this week, and the Freeze had the 3:30 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. time slots booked on the same dates. The name for all of those bookings was changed to Laker Academy, but video images from Monday afternoon, using LiveBarn.com, clearly shows the Blues and Freeze using the rink.
Both teams are owned by 50 Below Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the Western Hockey League’s Winnipeg Ice. The president of the Sunova Centre is Rhys van Kemenade, who is also the director of teams and tournaments for 50 Below.
That’s the very same van Kemenade who was involved in another controversial hockey story last summer, in which several Saskatchewan youth teams violated protocols and snuck into Manitoba for a weekend tournament involving players aged seven to 12.
Those involved went so far as to change the team names, keep game rosters blank and instructing parents not to post anything on their social media pages to avoid tipping anyone off as to what was going down in Winnipeg. You know, perfectly normal behaviour when you know you are guilty as sin.
Investigations were launched in both provinces, with the Saskatchewan government saying they should not have been allowed to compete under existing restrictions that
“tournaments and interprovincial competition are not permitted.” However, it appears as if no sanctions were imposed.
This time, van Kemenade can’t be allowed to skate. You won’t be surprised this all boils down to the almighty dollar.
“Blues and Freeze players pay lots of cash to play, and there is an item in the contract that says fees are based on ‘training,’ not number of games played. So if teams still had skill sessions or ‘training,’ they continue to collect fees,” the parent told me.
After an encouraging start to the season, the MJHL now has a major mess on its hands. Three players on the Steinbach Pistons tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, and a member of the OCN Blizzard got the virus a week earlier.
And now, a premeditated “screw you” from the Blues and the Freeze and a list of enablers to a province under siege from COVID-19, where our most vulnerable citizens are succumbing in alarming numbers and front-line workers are literally putting their lives on the line.
To all those who played a role and are guilty, it should be game over for a long, long time.