The Minnesota Shakedown

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The Minnesota Shakedown November 30, 2012 8:15 AM

For nearly four months battles have been taking place behind the scenes of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League. Why all the fighting? Primarily it has been about players rights and the ability of teams within the league to control those rights.

In Tier III hockey, the players and parents are the customer. They pay the bills and without them the team does not exist. Just like any other business, you must keep the customer happy. Why would any business try to restrict a customers free will to spend their money where they want to spend it? The answer is simple. If you provide a bad product and the customer discovers it, they usually want to take their business to another company.

I am sure Enron wishes they could have told their investors they had to keep buying their stock. They would still be in business too.

Without naming the players, I will try to describe the nearly insane chain of events that may be causing one team to forfeit three games in the standings. The forfeits themselves are only part of the problem. Another team may actually be awarded the wins, and the points will be taken from one team and given to another.

Yes. The league is going make a decision that will have an immediate effect on the standings and playoff positioning.

How did this all start?

In order to understand, you must first know the MNJHL rules. The Minnesota Junior Hockey League is the only Tier III league in the United States where if you sign a tender, a contract, or play just one game for any team, then that team under MNJHL rules owns the players rights within the league for the duration of that players entire junior hockey career!

It is called the Assigned Player List. Each MNJHL is allegedly allowed to protect as many players as it wants. The funny thing is that this APL is suppossed to be published and available to review by every team. It is required to be published by MNJHL policy, yet no one has a copy and none can be found. In essence the league is now also requiring its teams to be clarvoient and be able to know who is on the list and who isnt. In theory, the rule would also protect players rights to teams that are no longer in the league.

IF that sounds crazy to you, it is because it is crazy, and it is completely against USA Hockey rules. But the MNJHL has been doing it and getting away with it for years.

In the following example, the MNJHL rule regarding player protection directly effects the team and the player negatively.

A player signed a tender with Hudson Crusaders very early in the off season. That player then decided he did not want to play for that team, because he wanted to play for the Dells Ducks based on his long term relationship with its newly hired head coach. Shouldnt be a problem to trade or release the players rights to make the paying customer happy before any games are played and before camp opens, should it? Well, apparently it was.

The Crusaders Head Coach gave the Ducks Head Coach permission to talk to the player to arrange a trade. The problem, the Cusaders HC is not the General Manager and did not have the authority under league rules to make that authorization. The Ducks Head Coach is also the GM, so he had the authority, but did not know the Icehawks HC did not have that power. Not knowing of the problem, talks ensued.

Text messages between coaches and the player showed that the Crusaders, to the knowledge of the Ducks game permission. The Crusaders Owner Harry Urschel, owner finds out later and accuses the Ducks of tampering. League staff steps in, and a hearing is held.

During this hearing, with parents involved, Urschel clearly states that he will release the player based upon the parents letter to the league requesting that release. There are at least 8 witnesses that will attest to this fact, and there is an email stating the player is released. After the hearing Urschel decides he doesnt like the result, yes after he agrees to the release, so he appeals his own statement of release to the MNJHL.

The MNJHL later decides that the Crusaders should be compensated. Yes, after a ruling is made, after the player is released, the MNJHL says, they are changing their minds and forcing compensation. The Ducks are then forced to provide the Crusaders by a certain specified date. That notice and date was provided in writing.

The Ducks abide by the ruling and send the Crusaders three players by the specified date. The player is added to the Ducks roster when he reports, he is entered into the USA Hockey protected list system, he practices, and then he plays in games. All USA Hockey and MNJHL procedures are follwed based upon the Appeal ruling issued in writing by the MNJHL. Problem solved? No.

Even though there was a written ruling, and each team abided by the written ruling, a team not involved in the deal objected because a league trade form was not completed. None was required by the ruling and neither team directly involved voiced an objection. So, the Ducks are penalized for the lack of filing a form that was not required. The Crusaders, even though they did not file any document and are technically just as much at fault receive no penalty. If two groups made the same mistake, how is it that only one is punished?

The same weekend the above player gets on the ice, the Ducks sign a player that played in another league the year before. According to USA Hockey rules that player at the end of the preceeding season becomes a free agent in other leagues that he did not play in. The only exception to this rule is that Tier III teams can submit an additional protected list of Five Players to USA Hockey on August 1st. Those players that are additional to the standard 25 man roster are gradually dropped off the list based on the passage of time.

This player immediately contributes in Dells Ducks wins. The team that lost to the Ducks saw this player on the Ice three games in a row. His name was on the line up card, the referees had copies of the line up, both teams exchanged line up cards. The player was listed on the team and league website. Everyone knew he was playing for the Ducks.

Certainly that shouldnt be a problem. Turns out that it is a problem and a very big one.

Why this became a problem for the Ducks is simple.

Two years prior to the Ducks signing this player, the player played two games for, you guessed it, the Hudson Crusaders.

This player left the Crusaders in the 2010-2011 season after an injury. In 2011-2012 he played at a higher level. 2012-2013 he signs with the Ducks. The Ducks were not even in existance in 2010-2011.

So, because of the MNJHL rule that says any player that signs anything for a team or plays in one game is property of that team for the entire length of his junior career, this players rights belong to the Crusaders. Even though this completely violates USA Hockey rules, the MNJHL not only uses this policy but they may now used it to penalize the Ducks.

Last night a hearing was held by the MNJHL. What was at issue was that the Maple Grove Energy filed a complaint that both of the players mentioned in this article were illegal players. Of course Maple Grove filed the complaint after getting trounced by the Ducks.

After presenting all of the evidence, after learning of the USA Hockey rules, after certain persons were supposed to be precluded from voting, the MNJHL decided to punish the Dells Ducks.

In an email from Commissioner of Game Operations Mike Staloch ruled that the Dells Ducks had used illegal players. The email did not contain any explanation of what grounds Mr. Staloch used to make his decision.

The results; The Dells Ducks may be forced to forfeit three wins and six points. If this was the only punishment it may not be so problematic, and perhaps it could almost be understood.

Crazier still is that TJHN has learned that Staloch did not provide a breakdown of what the vote count was or who voted. TJHN has also learned from reliable sources that the vote may have actually been a tie which would mean no penalty should be imposed.

Compounding that punishment though is that the loosing team may be awarded six points and three wins. Forget the fact that the team lost the games and everyone knows it, forget the fact that the team saw both players names on the score scheet and the roster the first game and forget the fact that after the first game that team that objected allowed the players to play two more games before filing the objection.

The real problem here is the MNJHL and its ruling.

It violates USA Hockey rules, and it violates its own policy and procedure manual. The MNJHL manual states that player transactions are to follow USA Hockey rules. If this is the case, why is this hearing even had?

The answer is simple. The Dells Ducks are a second year program that are rocking the establishment of the MNJHL. The long time operators of the MNJHL dont like the fact that the Ducks try to force everyone to abide by USA Hockey rules. They also dont like that Ducks President John Schwarz is not afraid to speak his mind and go against the establishment.

The connections:

The Head Coach of the Maple Grove Energy is Don Babineau. Babineau used to be with the Hudson Crusaders. So, he knew the player was at Hudson two years prior, and he knew when receiving the lineup card prior to the first game being played that Hudson may own the players rights. Instead of making the objection before the first game as he would be ethically obligated to do, he let three games be played. The Ducks won all three games, and magically the protest on the players was filed.

How does the MNJHL make the ruling against the Ducks last night when the Commissioner Pat Zurick is in support of the Ducks and would have ruled in the Ducks favor? They Fire Pat Zurick before the conference call. How do we know this? Read an excerpt from a Pat Zurick email received below:

"Can you say kangaroo court. These two cases are absolutely some of the most ridiculous proceedings I have ever come across. They could have waited until the end of the month to let me go, but they were afraid that I would bring truth and common sense to the proceedings.

The truth is they need a yes person in the commissioner’s role and now they have it. The problem is that they will be taken to court some day because they don’t follow their own P and P, which by the way is a completely non-binding and illegal document. It was written by the league expert in law Harry and any real lawyer would have it ripped to shreds in no time. I wouldn’t go to Minnesota Hockey. I would go straight to court. They have showed a complete bias against your team and the ruling penalizes the players and that is not what the governing body (USA Hockey) is all about."

So the MNJHL has effectively penalized the Ducks players. They have silenced people from talking to the press within the league with threats of fines for telling the truth if that truth may make the MNJHL look bad even when speaking the truth.

The MNJHL has effectively exposed themselves as a league that is not designed to benefit anyone other than the people that run the league. It is the best example of an "old boy network" that can be found in hockey today.

This is the same league that is allowing one team that sold a player to another non USA Hockey league last year, to retain his rights after leaving the league in that sale in order for that same team to sell his rights within the league once again this year. Yes, one team collected player tuition, sold the player to another team, and now gets to sell him again, profiting three times off of one players rights. Does that sound ethical or in line with USA Hockey rights?

What will this bring the MNJHL? It will bring a bunch of players who will no longer trust the league or those in charge of running the league. It will ensure that players effected will not return to the league next year, and it will ensure that any player considering the league in the future will know the truth. In the MNJHL players are considered cattle, and some team owners are indentured servants, while others in charge own the kingdom.

Sounds like a place every player will want to play doesnt it? Maybe this is why teams left the MNJHL for the NA3HL. Maybe this is why other MNJHL teams are currently talking to other leagues to explore options for next season.

Information provided to TJHN suggests that the Dells Ducks will be filing an appeal of this ruling with USA Hockey shortly. USA Hockey should reverse the decision, but will it be enough to rectify the problem? Should USA Hockey rule in the Ducks favor in the future, it is the MNJHL and the people who made this decision that should be held accountable. Refusal to abide by rules in the USA Hockey Annual Guide, should result in those making these decisions being fined, suspended and removed from office.

The final stroke in all of this? Tom Brower, the Director of Player & Coach Development for the league, a person who presides over the MNJHL Coaches Commitee, has been told he is "well outside the scope of your role description" when wanting to discuss changing this player rule in the MNJHL.

The rule restricitng players within the MNJHL is calls the Assigned Player List. This APL is what assigns players rights to teams for the duration of their entire junior career within the league to what ever team protects them.

The person responsible for basically shuting down discussions to change the rule, which coaches support changing? Michael Fatis, Executive Secretary of the MnJHL, and Owner of the Rochester Icehawks.

Yes, the Secretary of the league is telling the Director of Player and Coach Development that he can not make suggestions to the MNJHL Board of Directors that would improve the league and teams. The Secretary is telling the Coaches Commitee that they can not make suggestions through their assigned commitee to the BOD. The Secretary is an Owner of a team within the league and is blocking other owners from having input on whether or not they should even be aware of coaches wanting this change.

First of all, a team owner making these suggestions that effect other team owners without allowing those team owners has a serious conflict of interest. Second of all, a secretary has no authority to tell the Director of Player and Coach Development how to do his job without taking it to the Board of Directors. Thirdly, why wasnt the President or Commissioner making these statements to Mr. Brower?

For many years, rumors have been very loudly talked about concerning the Mr. Fatis and the Rochester Icehawks controlling the direction of the MNJHL. Many have publicly said that Fatis and Harry Urschel control the league and make decisions without informing others with in the league.

More disturbing news sent to TJHN has Harry Urschel still working as an "adviser" for the Hudson Crusaders. Urschel is still reportedly participating in conference calls, league and team decisions. This is the person who nearly single handedly caused the demise of the Crusaders three days before the season opener.

The MNJHL certainly seems to have found ways to survive over the years. Unfortunately they have forgotten that the customer comes first in this business.

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