Why would the Saskatchewan Hockey Association decide that a First Nation's "one-of-a-kind" hockey program should no longer exist?
It's the question that has been vexing many in the Saskatchewan and Indigenous hockey communities following the Nov. 12 announcement from the SHA that the Beardy's & Okemasis Cree Nation, located approximately 80 kilometres north of Saskatoon, will no longer have midget AAA and midget AA boys teams starting next season.
The First Nation was not the only Saskatchewan community to learn it will lose a team. The midget AAA Notre Dame Argos will also be no more — and Unity will no longer have a midget AA club after this season.
However, Beardy's was the only community to learn it will lose teams at both levels.
The Beardy's Blackhawks, a team in existence for 25 years, was also the only First Nations-run midget AAA team in the country.
That has many in this era of reconciliation asking why the SHA would end a program that was not only unique in Canada, but also well-regarded in the Indigenous community and beyond.
As of Saturday, almost 5,800 people had signed an online petition calling for the midget AAA Blackhawks to be reinstated.
While SHA general manager Kelly McClintock has said the association's decision can't be appealed, he got into some specifics behind it — something the league had previously declined to do — during an interview on CBC Radio's Blue Sky on Thursday.
But first, there are some potential factors that have been ruled out publicly by one side or the other.
Not a case of racism
To replace the Blackhawks and Argos, the SHA has decided to establish new midget AAA teams in Estevan and Warman.
In a situation involving predominantly non-Indigenous communities benefiting from an announcement made by a predominantly non-Indigenous entity at the expense of an Indigenous community, it would be tempting to think that racism played a role in the decision-making.
But Beardy's spokesperson Rick Gamble told CTV News while he didn't know the rationale behind the decision, he was careful to note he wasn't saying it had anything to do with racism.
Rink size and age not factors
Both Estevan and Warman have arenas built in the last eight years that are large enough to accommodate Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League games.
However, McClintock told CBC News that neither rink size nor age were factors when the association made its decision.
"We based it on the criteria we outlined," he said. "So, no. It didn't play a part."
Recent team performance not an issue
While the Blackhawks have a league title in their history, they have not finished higher than seventh in their 12-team league since the 2011-12 season, when they finished third.
Meanwhile, since the Argos' 2013-14 championship season, they have finished no higher than 11th — and have been last in four of the five seasons since then.
According to McClintock: "No, we didn't look at that."
With those possibilities being eliminated, let's look at other statements McClintock has made regarding the SHA's process.
Criteria for having a team
The SHA's stated criteria for keeping or acquiring a midget AAA team beyond this season included:
- Local coaching resources.
- Billeting options for players.
- A billeting co-ordinator.
- An educational consultant.
- A written working agreement with a local high school for the players to attend.
- A midget AA team to provide a source of affiliate players.
McClintock said the SHA evaluated the applications based on those criteria.
"We want to make sure that if we are approving teams, that those things are taken care of," he said. "The 12 selected were the ones that were ranked higher than the two that weren't."
When asked by Peter Mills on CBC's Blue Sky to explain why the SHA chose to eliminate Beardy's from the league, McClintock provided two reasons.
He said the Beardy's minor hockey system "hasn't flourished that much" below midget hockey in the last few years.
He said the SHA was "concerned" there were under 100 players and only one team below midget registered in the entire Beardy's minor hockey association last year — although Beardy's officials say there were actually three teams registered below midget.
Secondly, McClintock said the SHA looked at whether teams provided billeting options in the community where they play.
He said Blackhawks players have been billeted in communities such as Warman, Martensville, Rosthern and Prince Albert — and that the Blackhawks were the only team in the league with this type of arrangement.
He said midget AAA teams can use players from anywhere in the province, but that Beardy's in recent years has only drawn players from the Saskatoon to Prince Albert corridor.
"They live at home and they drive to practices and games," he said.
"So that's a concern.… That was one of the requirements, that you provide billeting options."
In their application to keep the team, he said the Blackhawks proposed a "hybrid" model that they had been using.
"We would prefer to see kids not driving, if possible, on highways to practices and games at the AAA level," McClintock said.
Concentration of players
When CBC first reported in August that the SHA was requiring midget AAA teams to reapply for standing, McClintock said in an interview the association's board felt it was time to review its system to determine if teams "are in the right places."
There had been a redistribution of where players are registered in the province, he said at that time, "so we want to address that."
As well, he said, there have never been so many players registered in lower levels of minor hockey in the province.
"So we want to make sure that there's opportunities for the better players as they're coming through the system, that there's teams in their areas — or close enough to home — that it's a positive environment for them."
He said the largest number of midget AAA players are from Saskatoon. The number grows from around 50 players to about 70 if you include all players within a 25-kilometre radius of the city, he said.
McClintock said the second-largest zone was Zone 1, in the province's southeast.
"So it means with a team down in that area that players won't have as far to move away from home to play AAA," he said after the SHA's decision was announced.
Competing definitions of opportunity
It's fair to wonder how much that desire to "make sure there's opportunities for the better players" played a role in the SHA's decision.
McClintock said the process that led to the realignment came about after member minor hockey associations from across the province told the SHA that it needed to re-evaluate its elite levels of hockey.
"I think we've got to look at what's in the best interests of all the members of Saskatchewan, and not just one particular community," McClintock said in August.
It's possible that the very attribute that Beardy's officials are holding up as the main reason why they should be allowed to keep a team — opportunities for Indigenous and northern players who wouldn't otherwise get them — stands in the way of one of the SHA's main goals.
If you're giving chances to players that wouldn't normally get them, then it follows that other players won't get those opportunities.
The SHA might agree that both objectives are worthy goals — but it's difficult to achieve both without increasing the number of teams.
We already know that increased opportunity is top of mind for the SHA. McClintock has repeatedly said the elimination of the Argos will open up more spots for Saskatchewan players to play midget AAA, since only the Notre Dame teams have been allowed to use out-of-province players.
We also know that having more than 12 midget AAA teams in Saskatchewan is a non-starter for the SHA.
McClintock said the association didn't want to affect the chances of Saskatchewan AAA teams winning the Telus Cup national championship.
"We have what's considered one of the best leagues already and we wanted to maintain that," he said.
If the SHA isn't willing to entertain a 13-team league, then it has to choose one definition of opportunity over another — unless it decides that the new spots opened up by the elimination of the Argos is enough to increase opportunities for all Saskatchewan players, without eliminating Beardy's.
No room for Beardy's midget AA team
But why did the SHA also feel it needed to eliminate the Beardy's midget AA team — one of 25 in the province?
Seventeen midget AA teams located in and around communities with midget AAA teams were automatically granted standing because of affiliation requirements. That left eight teams that could be situated in non-AAA settings.
According to McClintock, the SHA decided Shellbrook would be a better place for a midget AA team because it was closer to where Beardy's was drawing its AA players.
He said many of them are from north or west of the North Saskatchewan River, and that significantly extends travel time for those players.
Obligation to work on reconciliation
When asked on Blue Sky if the SHA had an obligation to work on reconciliation through hockey, McClintock said "absolutely. And we do."
He said the association partners with SaskSport to provide officiating and coaching development clinics for Indigenous people without cost.
He also said eight Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League teams had players on Team Saskatchewan's boys squad at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships this past spring.
More Indigenous youth are becoming "really good hockey players," said McClintock, and are getting opportunities from coaches throughout the entire league.
"If they're an elite hockey player, they'll get an opportunity to play and they'll make sure that the environment is comfortable for them."