Youth hockey club antitrust suit: AHAI wrongly blocks out 'challenger' clubs from top tier spots

By Scott Holland | Feb 22, 2019

For the second time in recent months the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois is the defendant in a federal antitrust lawsuit.

In a complaint field Feb. 21 in Chicago federal court, the Reapers Hockey Association said AHAI has abandoned its mission of increasing participation in youth hockey because it’s “been effectively hijacked into serving the pecuniary interests of the existing four hockey clubs” with top-tier AHAI charters. Reapers also named those clubs as defendants — Team Illinois, of Woodridge; Chicago Mission, of Bensenville; Chicago Fury, of Orland Park; and Chicago Young Americans, of Palatine.

“AHAI treats the existing four Tier I clubs as if they are chartered in perpetuity, thereby guaranteeing those clubs a permanent protected status and providing AHAI an excuse to deny consideration of any new applications," Reapers said in its complaint.

The complaint said the clubs and AHAI conspired to “maintain and abuse AHAI’s monopoly power over amateur hockey in Illinois,” including by inflating the price of participation, covering up anti-competitive behavior, financially benefitting a small group of people and bullying and intimidating challengers. The Reapers say this conduct violates both the federal Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

The AHAI in January denied the Reapers’ application to be given a top tier charter and said there was no appeal process under AHAI bylaws. The Reapers want a judge to force AHAI to issue additional charters to top tier teams, and to bar the four current top tier clubs from serving on AHAI’s Tier I Committee or being involved in decisions about how many charters should be issued and to which teams. Alternatively, the Reapers seek a court order forcing AHAI to implement a new, objective system for determining which four clubs will get a charter each season.

In December, Black Bear Sports Group filed a federal complaint saying the AHAI denied a charter and otherwise tried to keep amateur hockey in the state confined to nonprofit organizations. Black Bear is based in Chevy Chase, Md., and wholly owns and manages Center Ice Arena in DuPage.

In its complaint, the Reapers explained Tier I teams are for the highest skilled players from ages 9 to 18. There are 125 Tier I teams in the United States, and USA Hockey guidelines say such clubs should account for no more than 15 percent of amateur players in a given state. For players 8 and older, the only leagues in Illinois are AHAI members.

The Reapers said Illinois has the worst ratio of Tier I clubs to players of a dozen other states, with one for every 5,837 players, whereas Indiana has three Tier 1 clubs, one for every 1,282 players. Illinois hasn’t added a Tier I club since the Mission joined in 2001. The Reapers alleged the clubs and AHAI partnered to enact a Four Club Restraint rule that keeps those four organizations in power, counter to USA Hockey’s goal of increasing participation, and in conflict with the 15 percent cap.

“AHAI simply relies on inertia and favoritism,” the Reapers said. “It refuses to consider new applications in any respect, citing the Four Club Restraint and the existence of four incumbent clubs. AHAI’s circular abuse of discretion and bad faith is exactly what happened with respect to the Reapers, and it guarantees that the four existing Tier I clubs are permanently chartered no matter what, free to rampantly overcharge and underperform, insulated from competition of any kind.”

A jury trial is demanded.

The Reapers are represented in the matter by Ulmer & Berne LLP, of Chicago.

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U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Ulmer & Berne LLP

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