Youth hockey in Illinois has expanded tremendously over the past decade which can be attributed, at least in part, to the success of the Chicago Blackhawks since 2013.
Participation grew by more than 18 percent between the 2013-14 and 2017-18 seasons to more than 23,000 youth players. Despite this rise in popularity, however, the participation opportunities are extremely limited and the cost remains prohibitive for many would-be participants.
Two lawsuits filed over the past three months detail how the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois has allegedly engaged in monopolistic behavior hindering the opportunity for more players to attain the skills necessary for future success.
AHAI is the sole appointee of USA Hockey to govern amateur hockey in Illinois, meaning that state association’s policies and procedures govern all aspects of youth hockey, including the number of teams and players. In addition, the group controls the majority of amateur hockey events in Illinois, including games, clinics, tournaments and other events.
The rule that is the subject of the lawsuits is association Rule 13.3.3. This rule limits the amount of Tier I teams to “not more than four Tier I [y]outh [o]rganizations fielding not more than eight Tier I youth teams at any age level.” Tier I teams represent the highest skill level and draw attention from college recruiters. Reapers Hockey Association want to join Tier I, but were prohibited to do so, precipitating its lawsuit.
Reapers previously filed an application to the state hockey group to become a Tier I organization and allege that the application was denied based on Rule 13.3.3. According to the complaint, Illinois has one Tier 1 team for every 5,837 players, a ratio far higher than any other state. In contrast, in neighboring Michigan, the ratio is one club for every 3,213 players. Michigan currently has eight Tier I teams.
The complaint states that this so called “boys club” culture has caused the organization to stray from its core values and has led to arbitrary decision-making in terms of rules enforcement.
Reapers also points out that several persons in positions of authority have conflicts of interest, influencing many of the decisions made. Without expansion, Reapers contends, this conduct will continue and competition will be restricted indefinitely.
Reapers seeks expansion of options for youth players and to ease the financial burden on families. Reported estimates suggest that families of Tier I participants pay an estimated $10,000 per year, not including the costs of travel to tournaments, which are regularly held out of state.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, the director of Reapers suggests it would charge up to 25 percent less than current costs. The four youth clubs that currently have Tier I status are also named defendants. Reapers alleges that they have no incentive to lower costs without any real competition.
An additional lawsuit, filed in December, concerns Tier II participation and state association’s rules regarding not-for-profit status. Black Bear Sports Group, an owner and operator of ice rinks across the U.S., expressed interest in creating a Tier II team at one of its Illinois rinks. As the name suggests, Tier II teams provide an opportunity to play competitively at a skill level just under Tier I.
Currently, there are almost 50 Tier II hockey clubs in the Northern Illinois region with each having a membership between 120 to 350 players. However, the state association has not approved a new Tier II club in five years, despite the aforementioned growth of the sport in the state.
According to the Black Bear lawsuit, the association told Black Bear that a Tier II club in DuPage is “unnecessary and that there are already enough teams in the relevant market.” Black Bear also claims that the association rejected its application because it is a for-profit entity and organization rules require sponsoring organizations to be not-for-profit.
The association has since responded that Black Bear lacks standing based, in part, on Black Bear never actually submitting an application. However, Black Bear claims that even if it were to apply, the association has made it clear that no application will be accepted in any form.
While fighting these suits, a spokesperson for the association’s counsel noted that the organization looks forward to continuing its mission to serve Illinois’ hockey community.
In both cases, the plaintiffs also have financial incentive to see the sport expand, as this would certain result in increased revenue for the club and rinks. Though, based on participation levels and the overall lack of access, this leverage play certainly seems justified.
With the boom in participation, it is logical for an expansion to occur, though in the early stages, it remains to be seen whether this will be facilitated through court intervention or if an amicable solution can be reached by the relevant parties.