Mark Donkers of Sarnia, Ont., is your typical hockey-loving Canadian kid. The 11-year-old is proud to play for the under-12 BB Sarnia Sting junior team.
But while he wears the same jersey as his teammates — the one with the angry bee logo — Mark was told last month he couldn’t keep playing on the team until he provided more documentation, because he wasn’t born in Canada.
Mark has been playing hockey for years and the request came a week before a tournament in Kitchener.
He was born in Mexico and came to Canada with his Mexican-born mother, Adriana Mendoza, when he was a year old. His father is Canadian, and Mark and his mom have been Canadian citizens for more than 10 years.
But Mark was caught up by a rule of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the Zurich-based governing body of international hockey. The IIHF counts Canada among its 83 member associations.
The rule requires players of all ages who are in member nations to secure a transfer from their country of birth to the country where they plan to live and play hockey. Without this transfer, players born outside Canada can’t be on the roster of a Canadian team licensed by Hockey Canada.
Mendoza sees it as a barrier to play — particularly for children from diverse backgrounds — at a time when there’s a push to make the game more inclusive.
“We talk about inclusion, this is not inclusion,” said Mendoza. “This is against certain people from certain countries.”
Another parent in the Sarnia minor hockey association was tripped up by the same rule.
Harry Chadwick legally adopted his son Harrison from China in 2012 when Harrison was an infant.
Now 11, Harrison was also told he had to apply for a transfer, a process that requires forms to be filled out and a scan of the player’s passport to be sent to the local hockey organization. From there, the documents are forwarded to the hockey association in the player’s country of birth for approval.
‘Absolutely ridiculous,’ parent says
Like Mendoza, Chadwick said it’s a hoop his son shouldn’t be forced to jump through to play hockey.
“It’s pretty offensive to be asked to prove citizenship and get a transfer from a foreign country,” said Chadwick. “My son was 16 months old when he left China. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
In response to calls for comment from CBC News, both the IIHF and Hockey Canada provided emailed statements about the transfer rule.
An IIHF spokesperson said the rule exists to ensure the integrity of the game and establish in writing which governing body a player falls under if they have roots in more than one country.
“For the integrity of the sport and to respect the rules of law, international transfers are regulated in ice hockey same as in many other team sports, to respect contractual obligations, suspensions and to avoid the circumvention of such,” the statement said.
A statement from Hockey Canada said that as an IIHF member, it has to follow the transfer rules.
The statement also said securing a transfer isn’t onerous: A player submits a form and documents, including a scan of the person’s passport, to Hockey Canada through their member hockey branch. The request is processed through an online system and the IIHF said transfers are typically processed in players’ birth country inside of seven days. Also, players under 18 aren’t charged a processing fee.
However, Chadwick said he doesn’t see the sense in making all players born outside Canada get a transfer when only a tiny fraction of children who strap on skates will ever play in high-level international tournaments where player eligibility could become a serious issue.
“You’re applying a rule that should apply to an Olympic team and imposing it on every hockey player in the country, even a player in Saturday Timbits hockey,” said Chadwick.
However, IIHF spokesperson Martin Merk said in an email to CBC News that it’s hard to predict if and when a player’s home jurisdiction may be called into question later on. He also said where a player is registered and eligible to play can become an issue in competition, even in leagues below the elite level.
“It’s good if everything has been properly documented,” said Merk.
Both Chadwick and Mendoza said vetting player eligibility should come later, and only for high-level players with the potential to land on national team rosters. They also said it’s wrong children have to worry about being eligible to play while a transfer is being processed.
In the end, both Donkers and Chadwick got their transfers quickly enough that it didn’t keep them off the ice. In Chadwick’s case, the local hockey association worked with Hockey Canada to get an exemption to allow him to play while the transfer was processed.
Mark Donkers’s transfer came from Mexico, but it didn’t happen until a day before his tournament.
For both players, the uncertainty and having to scramble was unsettling.
“I was very shocked that I had to do this,” said Mark Donkers. “I was very stressed out in the moment because I did not want to miss the tournament.”
Noor Othman has four boys enrolled in hockey, two were born in Lebanon, one in Syria where the family was fleeing civil war. The transfer process was confounding, especially given that she’s an Arabic speaker working to learn English. Chadwick and other parents worked together to understand the rules and fill out the forms.
Othman’s son Muhammad is 10. He doesn’t like any rule that applies to him but not his Canadian-born teammates.
“I just want to play and be like the other Sarnia Sting,” he said.