To me, the bottom line for the pay-to-play model, simply put, was the league was hatched from a business opportunity. I don't mean that in a positive or negative way, just it was what it was. The organizers felt that people would pay for development and that's what they thought they could provide in a different manner than organized hockey.
That league came in on the heels of the Canadian Development Model, which limited access to 16 year olds and younger players. They did a number of smart things like mandate that if teams take 15 and 16 year old kids (and they were welcome to), they had to play. Early on, they mandated practice times. They allowed these young kids to play against older players, which you couldn't do in our model. They also gave a lot of families another choice if they maybe felt politically they weren't in with the AAA teams or junior teams in their area. The marketing as Jr. A also positioned themselves well, especially for parents and players who felt they had to be at that level, whether they were or not. But all these people had to pay for this wonderful opportunity - and again, as much as we don't like it, they realized it would cost money to offer these things and decided to charge.
My thoughts from the outside were that A) the talent pool in Ontario is only so deep, and a lot of legitimate junior players wouldn't pay for the development or Hockey Canada did a good job with the sanctions scaring away the exodus that happened with the old Metro league, and B) there was too much emphasis on freedom and rights of individual owners and less focus on the model. Actually, if anyone reads Gare Joyce's book on Bobby Hull, it was pretty similar to the WHA in a lot of ways.
I would guess the GMHL went into communities that wanted to be involved - some which didn't fit in the organized hockey loops of the day - where there wasn't the business community to sustain them and took on some owners that didn't have the resources they needed, and I think they'd tell you today they should have background checked some of them more closely. There was also pressure to let individual owners charge whatever they saw fit to run their programs based on their knowledge and that created some discrepancies in teams, or had some people waiving fees for some players to compete. I think it also contributed to the wide-ranging geography which raised costs for a lot of clubs over the years. I think if they had central ownership for all of their teams or had more of a top-down commissioner driven approach from Day 1, maybe they would have been more effective delivering the model that drove them. Those are just my thoughts.
Are there people over there using that model to make money? It's quite possible. Are there people in the OHA who have done so in the past? Yep. Are there people out there who are owning hockey clubs to advance their sons or for tax write-offs, or whatever? Yep. Neither model is a complete fail safe.
For a parent, any hockey should be buyer-beware. We have a best-practices template here now, but there's no test and there's no uniform standard. Ask questions anywhere. Know who is running and funding your team, know who is coaching your son and what they believe in. It's common sense.
We did have one player who came to us in Napanee after playing in the GMHL as a 15 and 16 year old. He was on the ice every day for two years and he came into our league better for it, definitely, than had he stayed in local minor hockey, and arguably better than AAA where I don't know that he was a high-end guy before he got all that ice time. Now he's one of the top liners on his Junior A team. It can be an option for you depending on circumstances, but explore your options and ask questions anywhere you may go.
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