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Ontario Jr. A deadline fiasco exposes the ugly side of trading junior hockey players

Several Ontario Junior Hockey League trades that occurred after the Canadian Junior Hockey League-mandated deadline has resulted in sanctions against the OJHL and the inability for several players to compete beyond the playoffs.
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Major junior hockey operators in Canada receive a lot of criticism – as they should – for treating teenagers like chattel when it comes to making indiscriminate trades. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Jr. A hockey players in this country have it even worse when it comes to being dealt.

Unlike the major junior kids, most of these kids actually pay to play the game they love. Some of them pay upwards of $7,000 a season to play, an amount that includes a payment to the league in which they play. The Ontario Junior Hockey League, for example, charges $1,800 per play in addition to the fees charged by each team. Some teams don’t charge their players anything to play, most do.

And in return for that, a player can get traded, not only within the league, but to another part of the country. So a teenager playing in the OJHL in Toronto can find himself traded to French River, or even La Ronge, Sask. If he turns down the trade, he receives a rebate on his payment, but basically has nowhere to play.

And sometimes things get ugly, the way they did recently in the OJHL. The 22-team league saw a total of 22 deals made on its trade deadline day of Jan. 10. At least seven of the players who changed teams were dealt after the Canadian Junior Hockey League-mandated trade deadline of 6 p.m. And as a result, the players involved in those deals will not be able to participate beyond the OJHL playoffs, specifically the Dudley Hewitt Cup and the RBC Cup national championship. Along with that, the OJHL was fined $50,000 and cannot host either the Dudley Hewitt Cup or the RBC Cup for five years. That means the Wellington Dukes, who did not exceed the deadline, have had the 2020 Dudley Hewitt Cup tournament revoked from them after it had already been awarded.

The CJHL board of directors, which is made up of the commissioners of each of the 10 Jr. A leagues in Canada, voted last May to change its deadline from 12 midnight to 6 p.m. All 10 leagues were notified of the change then, also once more in the off-season and again in November. Nine of the leagues complied with the new trade deadline, but teams in the OJHL did not because the time change was not communicated to them. The OJHL appealed the ruling to the CJHL and the appeal was denied.

So that means a player such as Jason Pineo, a 20-year-old winger who has committed to Niagara University for next season and was dealt from the Toronto Jr. Canadiens to the Oakville Blades, will have to sit out the national playdowns if his team wins the playoff championship. The Blades are currently in first place overall in the league and acquired Pineo for their playoff run. The same would go for Dante Spagnuolo, a 20-year-old who is bound for Mercyhurst College and was dealt from the Toronto Patriots to the North York Rangers. 

As for the Wellington Dukes, their chance to host and have an automatic berth in the Dudley Hewitt Cup next season has been taken away from them. And that can hurt a small-market team such as the Dukes, who rely on their ability to recruit players to a quality program. Having an automatic berth in the national playdowns serves as a very good recruiting tool for teams.

CJHL executive director Brent Ladds said the OJHL argued that it received conflicting information about the deadline from the Ontario Hockey Association – it’s confusing, but try to keep up here and that was the basis of the appeal. “If they felt there was conflicting information out there, they should have contacted us, but they didn’t,” Ladds said. “It’s unfortunate, but when we apply a sanction, it applies to the league and we don’t identify individual members. The board approved (this) direction in absentia of this issue here. So when the issue arose, the template was already in place to deal with it.”

OJHL commissioner Marty Savoy initially told TheHockeyNews.com that he could not comment because the matter was subject to appeal. He did not respond to an email from TheHockeyNews.com seeking comment after the appeal was denied.

As far as the CJHL is concerned, the matter is closed. In fact, there are by-laws in the league that call for substantial fines if a team goes outside of the league – such as seek a legal remedy. “It’s understood that once you’ve dealt with your issue within the CJHL, that’s the end of it,” Ladds said.

To say that Hockey Canada, which governs all amateur hockey in Canada, was caught off-guard by the imbroglio would be an understatement. Part of the problem here is that until about five years ago, players who played Jr. A hockey in Canada played for free and had their expenses covered. That has changed for the majority of teams, who charge registration fees to players to help make ends meet. Scott Smith, the chief operating officer at Hockey Canada, acknowledged there must be safeguards put in for players who pay to play when it comes to being traded.

“Hockey Canada is looking at its regulations and how they might be impacted with a pay-to-play model,” Smith said. “Because our regulations were built before there was a pay-to-play model.”

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