Youth hockey groups face off over antitrust charges

From ponds and backyard rinks to ice arenas across the state, Minnesotans love to fight for the puck.  And that combativeness starts at a young age.

The competition recently skated into federal court as a private for-profit hockey clinic filed an antitrust lawsuit against a group of metro area youth hockey associations, charging that they are banning players who participate in their competing winter  league.

Minnesota Made Hockey Inc. (MMHI) is suing Minnesota Hockey Inc. of St. Paul — a dozen metro area team clubs that make up District Six of the statewide organization — and the district’s director, Brad Hewitt of Edina.

At the heart of the suit is a rule change instituted in July that threatens to suspend players on District Six teams who “register or play hockey with any other organization, association or team during the winter hockey season.” The new rule is on the Minnesota Hockey District Six website here.

 The suit seeks a preliminary injunction barring District Six from enforcing the rule. MMHI’s suit alleges enforcement of the rule interferes with its business relationships and constitutes restraint of trade and a use of monopoly power in violation of state law. It also alleges the rule violates federal antitrust law and seeks monetary damages and court costs, to be determined at trial, as well as trebled damages under the federal antitrust statute. No hearing date has been set yet.

Jason Engkjer, an attorney with Kalina, Wills, Griswold & Clark, which represents MMHI said:  “We want to maintain the status quo. Things have been the way they’ve been without this rule the last 15 or 16 years … We’re asking the judge to stop enforcement of the rule while we sort out merits of the case. We have our viewpoint; they have their viewpoint. We’ll see who wins later.”

He originally had filed suit in Scott County District Court, but the defendants moved the suit to federal court because of the federal antitrust claim.

Robert DeMay, attorney with Leonard Street and Deinard who represents both the statewide organization and Hewitt, indicated the gloves already are on the ice: “We don’t think [the injunction] should be granted … Minnesota Hockey and Brad Hewitt will be defending vigorously and [believe] there is no merit” to the suit.

Both Hewitt and Mike Snee from Minnesota Hockey headquarters in St. Paul declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Bernie McBain, who founded Minnesota Made Hockey 17 years ago as a hockey clinic, was more forthcoming. He said the conflict is the result of his success in competing for players.

In 2006, McBain opened a year-round ice rink on Bush Lake Road in Edina, in the heart of District Six. With his own ice that he controlled, he launched a winter league. “We started out with 90 kids four years ago.” Now, with a 24-team roster and 488 players, he says he has hurt Minnesota Hockey league participation.

McBain questions the motivation for the rule change. “They say it’s an attendance issue. Then make it an attendance rule… It really doesn’t matter. We’re the target. With [District Director] Brad Hewitt, it’s personal.”

“No other district has put this rule in, although I’ve heard they’re using this as a test case before they adopt this district-wide.  That’s our feeling anyways,” he said.

“Minnesota Hockey is basically trying to shut us down,” he said. “Word is District Six was getting lot of pressure from [the statewide Minnesota Hockey] Association. … Kids were not backing out of our program but out of their program. … You have 10 or 15 kids back out of a smaller program — that hurts them. We are growing quite rapidly. … The quality level is just higher here. We tend to attract kids from all over … upper level players. … We make [Minnesota Hockey] work harder. We raised the bar.”

McBain, whose son Jaimie plays pro hockey for the Carolina Hurricanes, touched on a deeper issue running beneath youth sports teams — volunteer parents who run the clubs. “They all have kids in the program. … They all have agendas.” Parents “don’t want to make somebody mad,” he said. Anxious parents worry, “What does that mean for my kid?” if they anger club officials, he said.

He contrasts his league numbers, small but growing, with what he estimates to be a much larger number of  players participating across the dozen District Six teams and an even larger potential youth hockey population across the greater metro area. McBain estimated there are “about 50,000 kids at play” in the competition for youth hockey participants.

McBain also pointed out that, unlike the nonprofit club teams, he is running a for-profit business. “In property taxes alone, we spent $80,000 to run this rink. It’s not cheap.” (Hennepin County tax records show a 2010 tax bill of $81,691.62, with the first-half payment already made.)

My league will survive regardless, because there are enough people that want what we offer. But somebody’s got to stand up to these guys because they say, ‘If you don’t do what we want, we’ll blackball you.’ ”

While he’s against the boards with Minnesota Hockey, he described himself as “a huge supporter of [the national parent organization] USA Hockey. I really like what they do, but Minnesota Hockey is just run amok … way past their boundaries.”

While the offending rule at the heart of the lawsuit is clearly targeted at winter league play, McBain sees the conflict in larger terms. “In the end, it’s kind of about freedom. … How can you dictate what people do that’s lawful outside of your program?

“What’s the difference if you go to the park with a bunch of buddies [to play a pickup game of hockey]? What if a kid goes down to the park board and wants to play basketball? My argument is what’s next? Are you going to tell me I can’t go to church? … During the off-season, are you going to start approving who’s OK [to play in the league]? It’s not that big a leap.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 09/15/2010 - 09:01 am.

    Go Bernie Go! It looks like Mr. Hewitt and Minnesota Hockey have dropped their gloves against the wrong guy. MHI’s bully tactics sound just like HHS Sec Kathleen Sebelius saying that healthcare providers will be banned from participating in Obamacare if she doesn’t like what they say about it.

  2. Submitted by Josh Hewitt on 09/15/2010 - 02:46 pm.

    What has this world come to when a man (Brad Hewitt) who has selflessly committed thousands of hours of his own time, without profit or compensation, to enhance youth athletics and hockey in the state of Minnesota is getting sued for trying to keep the system fair.

    It is impossible to participate in multiple leagues and commit yourself fully to both leagues. And it is unfair to those who spend their time trying to make the MHI leagues great, and more importantly to the other children who try out for and play on the MHI teams, to have players who cannot commit themselves to their teams.

    If you want your child to play in an MMHI hockey league, then have your child dedicate themself fully to that league and that team. That’s just being respectful, and is what I would consider common sense.

    And as for the “Are you going to tell me I can’t go to church?” comments, those don’t even deserve a response they are so ridiculous. If you don’t see the difference between asking a child to commit to a team and trying to control where they go for religious worship, then I think you shouldn’t be managing youth athletics.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 09/18/2010 - 06:00 am.

    Can I nominate Al Shaver (or Wally, for that matter) to be the court reporter?

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