At the end of their playoff game against Comox last Sunday, the players from the pee wee Tier 1 Cowichan Valley Capitals skated to the corner of the rink where their coach was seated and raised their sticks to him in salute.
It was a simple, unscripted gesture, but one that showed how much the coaches – two of whom are currently suspended by the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association from all minor hockey activities because of a dispute at the executive level – mean to the players.
This is playoff time for minor hockey players, and several Cowichan teams are being forced to soldier ahead without coaches, for a problem unrelated to the players themselves.
"The heart of our team, which is the coaches, has been taken away from our children at a really critical time," said Glynis Steen, whose son, Marcus, plays for the pee wee Tier 1 Caps, and whose daughter’s initiation coach is also among the suspended. "For them to say that our kids haven’t been affected by this situation is so wrong."
The players, parents say, are collateral damage in the dispute between VIAHA and the Cowichan Valley Minor Hockey executive.
"I think they’ve lost focus," Steen said of the VIAHA. "They’ve forgotten that this is about the players, and about kids."
Six coaches and at least one manager were among 12 executive members suspended indefinitely by the VIAHA, affecting at least four teams and, according to some people, more than 100 players. Two members of the executive, including the past president, have been restored to their positions to make sure games continue.
Dylan Livingston’s son, Hunter, also plays for the pee wee Tier 1 Caps. Livingston isn’t behind the bench this year, but he has 17 years of coaching experience, and is dismayed by what is happening this year. "As an outsider looking in, having been a coach and being a parent, this has definitely affected my kid and the other kids as well," he said.
The pee wee Capitals finished league play at 12-0, and have been aiming all year at a provincial championship.
Livingston credits the coaches for all their work, which has included two on-ice sessions every week, as well as dryland training and video analysis.
"There’s no question that a lot of that [success] is because of the time that the coaches have put in," he said.
VIAHA president Jim Humphrey, a Lake Cowichan businessman, says he feels bad for the kids affected by the suspensions, but says he had no choice but to suspend the entire executive, whether they are coaches or not.
"The kids are playing hockey; they’re on the ice," he said. "They’re playing the game they signed up for. My other option was to suspend all of the CVMHA, so none of them would be playing. That was the choice I was given by VIAHA."
Humphrey would not go into detail about the allegations against the executive because they are currently being investigated, and said details would come out later this week. He said they included "some very serious things" and revolved around "irregularities in a committee meeting." The 16 other associations on the Island, he said, did not want to play CVMHA teams at all this year.
"Cowichan Valley Minor Hockey have not been good ambassadors for hockey this year," he said. "We’re trying to help them be good members of our society."
The indefinite suspensions handed to the entire executive were par for the course, according to Humphrey.
"In Hockey Canada, that’s how all investigations are done," he said. "It’s not just how Jim Humphrey does it or how Vancouver Island does it."
Parents say this is a case of "guilty until proven innocent," but Humphrey disagrees.
"Nobody’s saying they’re guilty," he said. "This is the process that hockey always uses, in minor and junior hockey."
The fact that the suspended members are coaches as well is unfortunate, Humphrey said. Executives with VIAHA and BC Hockey are not permitted to be directly involved with teams.
Parents of the effected players have asked to meet with Humphrey regarding the suspensions, but say they have received no response. Steen said she feels "powerless" because no one from VIAHA is engaging with them.
"As a parent who has paid registration fees, I am a member of VIAHA, and I feel like I’ve been given no information. I’m concerned and sad that these people have been taken away from our bench."
Humphrey doesn’t believe the suspensions to the executives will have an impact on volunteer levels in minor hockey.
"You can’t have kid organizations without volunteers, but they have to realize there are procedures we’re all bound to follow," he said.
Despite his lengthy experience behind the bench, Livingston, however, has other thoughts.
"Based on the stuff that’s happening this year in our association, I’m not sure I want to coach again, not for Cowichan, anyways," he said. "If I have to have a lawyer in my back pocket and deal with stuff these guys are dealing with, it’s not something I want to do."