The Eastern Junior Hockey League and USA Hockey need to take a really close look at the Jersey Hitmen and their head coach Toby Harris.
Rumors have swirled around the program for years in regards to elite level players getting a free ride on the backs of other players that were footing the bill for the entire program. As a result, and in addition to rumors surrounding other EJHL progrms of the same nature, prospects from Tier III junior hockey are being heavily scrutinized by the NCAA Clearing House and again by the compliance department at member schools.
Harris is one of the poster boys for why folks are talking about changing the way Tier III does business. Why would a team take the risk? Some of these programs are running four teams deep with an excess of 100 players in the system. If the team is able to recruit 6-8 high-end elite players to the program with the free-rides, it makes filling in the rest of the system with prospects, that believe they are also elite players, that much easier.
The Hitmen have one of the best records in the EJHL in the span of time that Harris has ran the team. That should not come as any surprise because Harris has routinely recruited players from higher levels to play down at the Tier III level.
Brett Pesce, committed to the University of New Hampshire, played for the United States U18 Selects at the 2011 Ivan Hilnka Tournament and was one of the leading scorers for the team with 7 points. Pesce was offered a spot on last year's Omaha Lancers (United States Hockey League) roster but elected to play with the Hitmen. "I know that Pesce did not pay anything to play for New Jersey," one former USHL coach said on Sunday. "He was not the only one," another said. "Toby (Harris) has it down to a science along with the successful track record to prove it. Anybody can win in that league if the coach is able to give it away for free."
This summer Harris is continuing his practice of raiding the higher levels of play. One of his targets was the leading scorer for a North American Hockey League team and was expected to be a major force for the 2012-2013 team. "Harris is a cheater, there is no question about that," said the team's coach. "This kid is not going to pay Jersey if he ends up on the Hitmen roster, not a dime."
Sources within the NAHL are upset that USA Hockey is allowing the practice to continue, but how can the league's Board of Governors cry about standards enforcement when their own league can't do it themselves? They can't.
What can be done about the problem? That is simple, take the teams out of the fee collection equation. Force all pay-to-play programs to collect through a single third party entity. The cost could be as little as $5 per transaction. Cheaters can still cheat by simply giving the money back to the prospects, but I have to believe that such a system would eliminate much of the problem. Random audits performed by USA Hockey, and stiff enforcement of the standards, should force programs to follow the line. Programs that don't, should be simply eliminated.
USA Hockey HAS to protect prospects and parents from the temptations of taking an improper benefit from teams. The NCAA also needs to directly address the issue, for all sports and not just hockey, or take the rules off the books. It is really a double standard, athletes can not accept the financial benefit of a free-ride during the developmental process (if the other members of the team have to pay) but can accept athletic scholarships while other students have to pay.
I seriously doubt that the EJHL and Harris is ever going to face a junior council inquiry the same way that the NAHL's Thom Brigl escaped the off-season without any type of discipline action from the league or USA Hockey.
Well, I promise to do my part by continuing to make a lot of noise whenever we hear about Harris, or any other program, cheating the system. We are always going to do our part to protect the players, even if that means from themselves.
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Stephen Heisler resides in Puerto Penasco with his wife, Maria, and their two children, Sonia and Tomas. Friend him on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/#!/stephen.heisler for more information and pictures from Mexico.