WINNIPEG — A judge has denied an injunction against the split of two Manitoba junior hockey leagues that some allege deliberately excluded Indigenous teams.
Justice Herbert Rempel said he could not rule on what motivated the split or whether racism played a role, but he recognized that junior hockey is important in First Nations communities as it provides entertainment and inspiration for youth.
"Losing that sense of pride has been painful," he told court in his ruling on Friday.
All the teams were part of the Keystone Junior Hockey League until May when five teams left to create the Capital Region League.
Jamie Kagan, a lawyer representing the KJHL and the First Nations, had argued that all the "white teams quietly got together and removed themselves, leaving behind the First Nations teams."
A complaint was filed to Hockey Manitoba and an internal tribunal ruled that the new league had breached the organization's constitution when it did not give proper notice to the KJHL. It said former KJHL players would need a release to play in the new league and there would be a $500 fee.
Both leagues understood the ruling differently when players hit the ice for a new season in October.
The Peguis, Norway House Cree, Opaskwayak Cree, Fisher River Cree and Cross Lake First Nations filed a statement of claim in October against Hockey Manitoba, the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association, the new league and the five teams in it.
The First Nations said players didn't get a release to play in the new league and no fees were paid. They also alleged it caused an exodus of players, which jeopardized the league.
Bill Bowles, lawyer representing the Capital Region League, had argued the release and fee should only apply to players who left the First Nations teams to join those in the new league — not players whose entire team left.
Bowles also told court the new league was formed because parents were concerned about long bus drives after the fatal Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team bus crash in Saskatchewan.
In his ruling, Rempel said the First Nations had not exhausted their appeals through Hockey Manitoba and couldn't prove the split would cause irreparable harm to the league.
Players in the new league would be benched for the entire season if the injunction were granted, he noted.
"Some 100 young men will no longer be able to chase their dreams of playing hockey."
Outside court, Kagan said he was disappointed with the ruling. The lawsuit will continue but Kagan said it could drag on for years and the league might not survive to see a decision.
The remaining KJHL teams will work with Hockey Manitoba to hold a provincial Junior B championship now that there are two leagues. But Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods said the new league is not interested in participating in a provincial tournament involving all teams.
"Hopefully down the road, once everything is cleared here, we have an opportunity to sit down and see if we can move forward to get the leagues together to participate in some type of competition," he said.
Woods said it was unfortunate the dispute moved into the courtroom. He disagreed racism played a role in the league's division and pointed out that there are First Nations and Metis players in the new league.
"Hockey Manitoba is all about providing opportunities for kids to participate in the game."
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press