By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – Shane Hnidy rates his chance of playing for the ECHL’s Florida Everblades again this season as a sliver.
That’s more of a chance than any other foreign-born players trying to join a minor-league hockey team in the United States this season.
The ECHL was informed last week that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had reached its 66,000 cap on distributing H-2B working visas on Jan. 3. No new visas will be issued until Oct. 1 of this year.
The H-2B visa allows for temporary work, less than 12 months, in a variety of professional fields and is the visa all United States-based minor hockey leagues use for their players.
For ECHL teams it means they cannot sign foreign-born players who do not have a pre-existing H-2B visas to play this season.
“It limits everybody’s options,” Florida general manager Craig Brush said. “We’re fortunate to have as many players as we’ve got.”
ECHL vice president of hockey operations Rod Pasma said the visas are not a league issue, but an immigration issue and there is nothing it can do this season. He expects it to especially hurt foreign college and junior hockey players who normally sign with ECHL teams when their seasons end in February and March.
“There are a lot of other businesses out there affected, not just us,” Pasma said. “It doesn’t look good for any player who isn’t currently on an H-2B.”
That includes Hnidy, a native of Manitoba, Canada. The Nashville Predators defenseman had a working visa, a P-1, as a foreign player in the NHL. But with the NHL on lockout, his visa is not recognized. He did not learn that until Jan. 7.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Hnidy, who has played seven games for Florida. “It’s not how I wanted it to be. Now I’ll just wait until we’ve totally exhausted any sliver of hope.
“If the NHL doesn’t start, I came down here to be part of this team. I don’t really want to leave. The only place I said I’d leave for is Nashville.”
Pasma said teams faced a similar problem last season when the visa limit was reached in March, but it happened so late it didn’t really matter.
“It caught us by surprise last year in early March, so you can imagine our surprise when we got a call in early January from our immigration attorneys,” Pasma said. “We weren’t surprised the cap was reached, but we were surprised by how early it was reached.”
Pasma said the ECHL did have a conference call with other pro leagues in the United States, including the NHL and the American Hockey League, over the summer to discuss the possibility of visas running out sooner this season. The NHL and AHL immigration lawyers looked into the issue.
“The lawyers told us we need to get it on the floor and have new legislation written,” Pasma said. “Due to it being an election year (in 2004) it’s a difficult battle for us because no one wanted take this on during an election year.”
Brush said he has not given up totally on Hnidy. He has his lawyers still exploring if there’s a way he can use his P-1 visa to play.
“That still is a gray area. That’s what we’re working on,” Brush said.
Former Blades player and Buffalo Sabres enforcer Eric Boulton, a Canadian, has run into the same issue. After playing 15 games for the Columbia Inferno, he was told he had to sit because he was using a P-1 visa. Boulton, however, is married to an American and his two children are U.S. citizens, so Columbia has applied for work authorization for Boulton so he can support his American family.
“If he can get work authorization he’ll have an opportunity to play for us again,” said Columbia coach Scott White, who added Boulton will not make the trip for Saturday night’s game at Germain Arena against the Blades. “Times have changed of course, so we’ll see.”
White does not believe the lack of visas will affect too many ECHL teams, but would not be surprised by a lot of action before the league’s March 22 trade deadline.
“There are a lot of good U.S. born players out there too,” White said. “It was a little early (for visas to run out), but that’s the way it is. You have to be able to adjust to adversity.”