|Predators Cup fiasco: A tale of three cities|
By Darren Lowry
Following the disastrous lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season, folks across Tennessee were hoping that July was the last time they’d hear the words "hockey" and "lockout" together.
Unfortunately, they were wrong.
Another lockout has halted the pursuit of a certain Cup played for each spring at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville. Not the Stanley Cup; the Predators Cup.
Only, in this case, it isn’t the owners versus the players. It’s city versus cities.
The petty pursuit of puck politics has stolen the chance for high school players from across Tennessee the chance to skate at the GEC for a true state championship.
In years past, two teams each from Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis would play a round-robin tournament to determine a champion. Starting this season, Nashville would have been allowed to bring four teams.
Until it was cancelled.
Nashville Predators senior vice president of communications Gerry Helper said he was disappointed about the cancellation, but said that not having one was only fair.
"If all three high school leagues cannot have an opportunity to compete for it, it didn’t seem appropriate to have a ‘state’ championship when not everybody had an opportunity to participate," Helper said.
The Predators refused to step into the debate, preferring that the cities work out the problem amongst themselves.
The main issue that ultimately caused a split between GNASH and Knoxville and Memphis involved what dates to host the tournament.
Originally, the board members of the TSSHA, the body made up of representatives of all three cities that was in charge of organizing the Predators Cup, voted to hold the championship game on March 18, with the elimination tournament held on the first week in March.
However, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was announced that the DeSoto Civic Center, where teams in Memphis practice and play, was designated as a refugee site, pushing back the availability of ice time for Memphis teams.
It was also discovered later that there would be a conflict with SAHA, which is holding a tournament that day.
TSSHA president Mike Beebe said that issue alone is what prevented Memphis and Knoxville from being able to play on March 18.
"A lot of players play for high school and travel," Beebe said. "GNASH is separate from the NYHL, but in Memphis and Knoxville, they’re all under the same league. As part of our rules, we’ve said if at all possible, we will avoid conflict with that tournament."
"It turns out Knoxville is sending some players to the SAHA tournament that weekend," he continued. "So their players would not be available to play in the Predators Cup."
Beebe said that process of elimination is how they chose the weekend of March 31-April 2.
MYHL chairman Russ Beatse added, "We didn’t think it was a very positive thing up front to make a child choose between his high school team or his travel team. We’re not big enough to do that, especially in Memphis and Knoxville."
Because of this, board members of TSSHA (including both Nashville representatives), unanimously voted in September to push back the time of the state championship tournament until March 31-April 2, with the Predators Cup being held on April 8.
"They understood the plight that we were under, and to give every kid a chance to play, and play a decent season, they voted to move this to the date that it’s on," Beatse said.
Beatse also said that Memphis was prepared to accept the alternative.
"We went in knowing that if we would have lost the vote, we would have had an eight game season, and we would have complied, because the Predators Cup is very important to us."
Memphis and Knoxville adjusted their schedules in accordance with the TSSHA’s ruling, and planned for the Predators Cup to be played in April.
All was quiet until the October board meeting of GNASH.
GNASH vice president Paul Mazzoni presented a proposal to change the date of the Predators Cup back to March 18.
Following Mazzoni’s proposal, a motion was held to, "send a letter diplomatically explaining to Knoxville and Memphis that we will be changing the date of the Predators Cup back to March 18, along with our reason for the change, and an invitation for them to attend. If they can make it, great! If they can't make it, well then, so be it."
The vote passed unanimously.
According to past GNASH president Robert Goldfarb, the problem centered around conflicts with other spring sports.
"We’re a scholastic league," Goldfarb said. "We honor the rules in the TSSAA. One of the rules in the TSSAA is that you don’t play a winter sport in the spring."
He added that several teams had players who were already committed to other sports that weekend.
"It would not be fair to our kids to say, ‘No, come on back in,’" Goldfarb said. "With some schools, like MBA, the headmaster would say, ‘I wouldn’t allow my people to play at that.’ It was a deal breaker, and we couldn’t do anything about that. We need to do things when they need to be done. That’s just the best for us."
The other cities pointed out that the TSSAA, however, does not sanction ice hockey as an official sport, winter or spring.
"We use their rules as a guideline, but we don’t exclusively use their rules," Beatse said. "We can’t do that. TSSAA has rules for transfer students that say transfers have to sit out 12 months if they change schools, for example."
Goldfarb said, "We do adhere strictly to the transfer rules between other schools. We even have lawsuits about that. We stick to TSSAA rules as much as possible."
Beatse said that the limited availability for ice time makes hockey quite different than other TSSAA-sanctioned sports, such as baseball or football.
"I guarantee you that if for some unforeseen reason there were no facilities available for a state football championship in the winter time, they would have the championship whenever they could get it done."
Still, GNASH apparently didn’t make their concerns known until later.
KAHA high school director and TSSHA board member Ron Verlinde said it wasn’t until the November TSSHA board meeting that the other cities were notified of GNASH’s complaints.
"At that time, GNASH stated that they were getting feedback from their teams that they would have problems with the dates of the playoffs, and wanted to see if we could push it back to the original date," Verlinde said. "We had provided our concerns with doing that, because we had already adjusted our schedule in Knoxville and Memphis, and booked the ice and paid for the ice already, and at that point, there was no turning back."
"We made it clear that this was a one-year thing, and that we wanted to go back to our normal schedule next year," he continued. "Out of that meeting, I think we had the consensus that we would play it as scheduled. And that included the Nashville group."
Things only deteriorated from there.
At their November board meeting, GNASH was notified by TSSHA that the dates would remain as scheduled. At that point, Mazzoni motioned to immediately withdraw GNASH from TSSHA.
The motion passed with just one opposing vote.
Just like that, the Predators Cup was dead.
Understandably, this made representatives from both Knoxville and Memphis very upset.
" Nashville said ‘We’ll tell Knoxville and Memphis how it’s gonna be,’" Beatse said. "That’s not quite democratic, is it?"
"We had a very democratic vote, and it was successful, and it helped us out," Beatse continued. "In years past, we’ve asked to change, so have Knoxville and so have Nashville. And sometimes somebody wins, sometimes somebody loses. But the thing is, this is supposed to be a process that works the best for all three organizations, and the best way that can work."
Beatse said the nature of democracy is that occasionally you have to accept outcomes you don’t want.
"We face this everyday. We face it with elections our city, for our state, for our nation that we do what’s appropriate by voting. Sometimes you win an issue, and sometimes you lose an issue. But that doesn’t mean you quit believing in the system, or you have anarchy. And that’s what we believe Nashville really wants is because of anarchy like that, if that was allowed then the strongest program would come out as the one that was gonna govern everything."
Basically, Beatse said, "we did what the rules say you do, and followed those, and won and then Nashville decided to take their toys and play elsewhere."
Beatse also said he understood Nashville’s conflicts, but says they should try to work around them.
"It seems like from the outside looking in, if you’ve got a team that can’t be there, you take the next best team to go," he said. "They have the luxury of having quite a few of those teams that we don’t have and Knoxville doesn’t have."
At the next meeting, the GNASH board was notified by the Predators that the team would not get involved in the conflict, but would stand behind the originally agreed-upon dates.
Mazzoni then filed another motion which would require any GNASH team to request permission of the GNASH board to participate in any TSSHA-sanctioned tournament, or risk being immediately expelled from GNASH.
The vote passed unanimously.
This obviously only further compounded the problem, and left Knoxville coach John Cox scratching his head.
"We’re confused about what Nashville wants," Cox said. "We have the general impression that Nashville does not want Knoxville’s participation. That’s the impression that we have been left with."
Another issue that GNASH objected to was the amount of representation from Nashville in TSSHA. Under the old rules, Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis all got two votes.
"They feel like the organization should be run like the Senate, and we feel like it should be like the House," Mazzoni said. "We have 2/3 of the teams, and we feel that we should have more than 1/3 the vote."
Beatse believes differently.
"I think it was very appropriate set it up to where it was that each region had equal representation on the board, if not, the small guy gets crushed. Always. Because if you do that, we have more teams than Knoxville, so Knoxville will never have a voice in anything."
Verlinde said that Memphis and Knoxville weren’t completely opposed to the idea of adding more representation; they just didn’t want Nashville to have a majority of the votes.
" Nashville was going to put a proposal together for their rationale for it, so at the next meeting we could bring it up for a vote," Verlinde said. "I don’t think we would support two additional board seats, where they could block any vote, but we weren’t completely against adding any."
KAHA president Jim Moore seconded Verlinde’s comments, saying, "We don’t disagree that they should have more representation, we just don’t think they should be able to override everyone else’s vote."
The real losers in all of this, of course, are the kids.
"My son plays for what would be the league champion, and to hear him talk, there is disappointment there," Verlinde said. "It’s a step down from what they had expected when the season started."
"It baffles our mind here how adults can make a decision that basically is hurting kids, because I know the kids in Nashville want to play for a state championship just as much as our kids do," Beatse said.
Helper said the chance to play on NHL ice must be a thrill for the kids.
"It’s generally a one-time opportunity, and it’s pretty special," Helper said. "That’s why when we are able to host it, we love to do it in the NHL game style with the P.A., the sound system and the music so that they really do get that experience. And for many of them, they may not play at this level again, so it’s truly a unique experience."
In place of the Predators Cup, the three cities are holding separate tournaments.
Knoxville and Memphis will be hosting their own state championship in Nashville on April 1-2, and did extend an invitation to Nashville teams to come.
However, because of GNASH’s ruling barring GNASH teams from playing in TSSHA events without permission, it is unlikely that any Nashville teams will be able to participate.
In addition to hosting their own GNASH cup that Ravenwood ultimately won, Nashville hosted their own scholastic tournament on March 3-5, inviting other teams from the Southeast, including Atlanta, to play instead.
Goldfarb said that GNASH extended an invitation to Memphis to bring one team, but that they declined when GNASH would not allow Memphis bring their best metro team. He added that GNASH offered to let Memphis bring their best scholastic team, but Memphis declined.
GNASH also invited teams from Knoxville to participate in their tournament about a week prior to its start, but according to Cox, it was far too late to ask.
"The scholastic teams in Knoxville are required to get board of education approval for any trip, which requires a 30 day notice. We can’t possibly get permission to bring a team that quick."
Nashville will also have a GNASH seniors’ game on March 18, before the Predators game that night.
In terms of going forward, the three cities say it’s possible that the Predators Cup will be held in future years, but a lot of work will have to be done before that.
"We probably need to pull everybody together and discuss what happened in Nashville and then start working as to planning for the future," Verlinde said.
"That probably needs to happen no later than May."
Helper said the Predators also want to be involved in making sure all three cities are in agreement in future years.
"Our intention would be to sit down with the organizations after the season and assess where we are now and how we go forward and make it work for everyone," Helper said.
One thing all three cities could agree on was that the Predators organization has handled the situation well.
"The Predators took a very good high road on this," Goldfarb said. "I commend them on doing that."
"My sense is that the Predators are very unhappy about the situation," Moore said. "It’s kind of a black eye to them as far as their public relations, and their outreach to youth hockey. All around this is not a positive thing."
"That’s the only reasonable situation for the pro team to take," Cox said. "If there’s an argument about it, they’re in a no-win situation, because whoever they appear to side with is going to create animosity, and they can’t afford that. They’re in a ticket-selling business, not a youth tournament business. I certainly appreciate and respect their position."
While players, parents and fans wait for the dispute to be resolved, the Predators organization is sitting back and hoping everything works out.
"We don’t want to determine how the teams make it to the final," Helper said. "We simply want to be the ones to host the event.”