Lawsuits allege Illinois youth hockey association makes sport more expensive, less competitive.Updated Friday Sep 27, 2019 12:51pm e.s.tOn Thursday Sep 26, 2019 the federal judge overseeing the case of an Illinois based youth hockey association dismissed a suit levied against the AHAI "Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois" citing claims of antitrust statutes were not violated. Full story pertaining to the suit belowOriginal Story Mar 7, 2019
Is this a trend?
The organization that oversees youth hockey in Illinois is making the sport more expensive and less competitive than it is in other states by preventing new teams from forming, according to a pair of lawsuits recently filed in federal court.
Representatives of two aspiring clubs allege that the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois, or AHAI, has refused to give them a charter, a decision they say allows existing teams to charge a premium, pay some of their officials six-figure salaries and shut talented children out of full participation.
“It means the kids (aren’t) able to achieve their highest level, which we think is not what people involved in youth athletics should be doing,” said Steve Dry, a hockey dad and head of the Reapers Hockey Association, which sued AHAI last month.
The lawsuits illuminate a peculiarity of youth hockey. While travel baseball, soccer and basketball teams can form in a variety of ways, in hockey, there is a single dominant route: Clubs must be granted membership by a state or regional association, which act as affiliates of the governing body USA Hockey.
AHAI, which did not respond to a request for comment, has that authority in Illinois. But according to the lawsuits, it exercises a much tighter control over the sport than other state associations.
Its rules allow only four clubs at the elite level known as Tier 1, where college scouts commonly hunt for talent. No other state has such a restriction, according to the Reapers, a new organization that aims to bring Tier 1 hockey to the North Shore.
They point to USA Hockey figures showing that Illinois has one Tier 1 team for every 5,837 players, a ratio far higher than any other state. The Reapers say the existing programs accept children from outside Illinois, further minimizing opportunities for homegrown kids.
Dry, who also serves as president of the Highland Park-based Falcons Hockey Association, last year filed an application with AHAI to allow the Reapers to become the state’s fifth Tier 1 club. But the lawsuit says AHAI board members turned it down, keeping the four-team rule in place.
The Reapers allege that the decision leaves the existing Tier 1 clubs — Team Illinois, Chicago Mission, Chicago Fury and Chicago Young Americans, which are also defendants in the lawsuit — “free to rampantly overcharge and underperform, insulated from competition of any kind.”
The lawsuit does not say how much the clubs charge, but parents whose children play Tier 1 hockey told the Tribune it costs around $8,000 to $11,000 a year, not including the cost of travel to out-of-town tournaments.
The Reapers will charge at least 25 percent less than the existing clubs, Dry said in an interview.
The lawsuit also calls attention to the salaries earned by some employees and officers at the state’s Tier 1 clubs, which operate as non-profits.
Tax records show that in 2016, all of them had at least one person earning more than $100,000. A contractor providing “management-coaching” to the Chicago Fury topped the list with compensation of $184,750, according to the documents.
The clubs declined comment or did not respond to interview requests.
A second lawsuit, filed in December, takes issue with AHAI’s oversight of Tier 2 hockey — the level at which dozens of local travel teams compete.
Black Bear Sports Group, a Maryland-based company that owns and operates ice rinks around the country, wants to create a Tier 2 team at one of its properties — Center Ice of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. It claims AHAI refused to allow that, saying sufficient clubs already exist in the market.
The company disputes that, saying hockey participation in Illinois has boomed in recent years without a corresponding increase in the number of clubs.
That has created a situation where prices charged by Illinois clubs “are substantially higher than the prices charged by youth clubs that use other Black Bear rinks in comparable markets, including Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey,” the lawsuit claims.
Black Bear says its prices would be lower than competing Tier 2 clubs. But in a legal filing, AHAI says Black Bear hasn’t actually put in an application and thus lacks standing to sue. The company says AHAI made it clear the application would not be accepted.
Black Bear executives declined comment. AHAI’s lawyers released a one-sentence statement to the Tribune: “AHAI looks forward to addressing the plaintiffs’ specific concerns, while continuing in its mission to serve Illinois’ hockey community.”
USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer said aspiring clubs can seek arbitration if membership decisions don’t go their way, and some affiliate decisions have been overturned. Neither the Reapers nor Black Bear have entered that process, he said.
Asked about the lawsuits’ portrayal of AHAI as overly controlling, Fischer replied: “Our 34 affiliates all have the best interests in mind for kids and families.”Originating Story