SHAWINIGAN, CANADA - MAY 27: CHL Commissioner David Branch presents the Memorial Cup to Michael Bournival #78 of the Shawinigan Cataractes during the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup game at the Bionest Centre on May 27, 2012 in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada. The Catarates defeated the Knights 2-1 in overtime winning the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Well, it's all over the news now. There is a group, which may have some level of grassroots support but may also be terribly overreaching itself, that is trying to form a players union of Canadian Hockey League players. The CHL is an U21 circuit with three distinct leagues across Canada and the northern United States comprised of the Western Hockey League (22 teams), Ontario Hockey League (20 teams), and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (18 teams). Players are offered free room and board, equipment, an optional post-secondary scholarship whose length is based on years of service, and a $50/week stipend (actual amount varied based on age, 20 year olds presumably paid the most).
Meanwhile, the CHL draws millions of dollars in revenue through ticket revenue, small local business sponsorship for individual franchises, major nation-wide sponsorships like Mastercard and Home Hardware, a modest amount of television revenue, and money through major events like the Memorial Cup, CHL Top Prospects Game, the Canada-Russia Super Series, and some money through participation via Hockey Canada in the World Junior Championships (U20). Oh yeah, and the recent inclusion of CHL teams, along with player names and likenesses, on EA Sports' popular NHL franchise. The CHL also receives money for developing NHL draft picks from the NHL via the NHL-CHL agreement, which unfortunately has never been made public even though it's a major document with a high interest value for the junior hockey fan.
So, bring on a major junior players union to help fix the disparity between the growth of welfare for the franchises and leagues in the past decade or so and the actual players. It sounds reasonable, but then again, it looks and reads terribly out of the gate. The first details about the CHLPA emerged over the weekend via The Junior Hockey News, a Las Vegas based website, and it appears everything since then has been a rush to put together. Their website is hilariously under construction, their logo is incredibly bland, and their recently launched Twitter and Facebook pages... well, their Facebook page has notable factual errors throughout its first post and their Twitter feed announced Georges Laraque as the CHLPA's first Executive Director, and misspelled his first name as George.
There's a joke in here about the union's start reflecting the level of education CHL players do receive I'm sure.
And with that, we've got some kind of movement, or summer distraction... or something. I hope what doesn't get lost here are the actual issues that CHL players really face that deserve a lot more discussion. Whether the players need a union, or junior hockey needs to be professionalized with actual salaries instead of just a benefits based compensation program is a larger issue (and one that would completely revolutionize the CHL as we now know it). Let's look at the non-monetary issues first.
The CHL only started offering post-secondary scholarship programs as a means to take away the major attraction of Canadian and American youth to joining the NCAA over major junior. The program works as follows, from the CHL webpage describing the WHL's program:
For every season a player plays in the WHL, they receive a full year guaranteed Scholarship, including tuition, textbooks and compulsory fees, to a post-secondary institution of their choice. For example, players graduating from a four-year WHL career are eligible to receive four years of scholarship funding. The WHL Scholarship, combined with additional financial assistance from Universities in Western Canada, makes the WHL - Canada West Universities joint scholarship equivalent to any other offer available in North America today.
There are major issues with the program. To access the program, players have 18 months from the end of their career to start drawing from it. The amount of money provided is based on the costs of the university closest to the player's hometown. If they want to go to a more expensive university, they have to make up the added costs for it. If they want to try professional hockey, do mission work in Africa, or find themselves in India for longer than 18 months they lose their scholarship options.
Gilles Lupien gave an interview with CBC about the challenges road trips and the current CHL schedule places on the high school performances of players as well. It's a fair point, although Lupien goes off on several tangents later in the interview which are questionable regarding pay scales and the like.
Perhaps the weirdest element of the CHL is how they actively deny players from seeking employment opportunities at age 18 and 19 in the American Hockey League. The NHL-CHL Agreement essentially limits the employment opportunities to the super-elite junior player, the ones that can make it in the NHL. If junior hockey is some sort of hockey university, it'd be like saying you couldn't drop out of business school unless you could join a fortune 500 company. If you wanted to join a start-up, too bad. The AHL is the logical league for a lot of good CHL players at these ages, but instead they are limited to simply dominating their CHL affiliate. Players like high scoring blueliner Ryan Murphy can't join the AHL this next year, for example, even if they're amongst the last cut from their NHL training camps.
For the rank and file CHL player, however, this isn't a major concern. Most CHL players can't play at that level even when they're 20 years old. It keeps the level of play at the CHL artificially high, however, and is the only league in the world that has this exception.
Right now, players are essentially at the will of their league commissioner when it comes to matters of league discipline. This isn't unlike the current NHL model, who have a PA working for them as well, but without any real defence options players are subject to often tougher disciplinary actions than professionals face if they should commit an infraction. In the OHL in recent years, players have effectively had their junior careers ended through suspensions. It might be helpful to have more effective representation for players in order to get a fairer shake in these matters.
Short of earning salary, the weekly stipend model hasn't been adjusted in recent years and is long overdue for an increase as a result. This isn't 'contamination money' as the CHLPA Facebook page says, players are made ineligible for the NCAA due to the fact that there are players with professional contracts that are in the CHL, first round draft picks of NHL teams that get returned to the CHL by their clubs and have to play against the other players who don't have employment. They aren't earning a salary yet, but they received bonus money and have essentially turned professional with a future contract in place. I'm not sure of the exact payscale, I've heard $35/week brought up by Lupien (likely for 16 year olds) and I've heard $100+ for 20 year olds. $50/week seems to be the standard that keeps being referred to with the most frequency. This is essentially allowance money... it has been kept at the same rate for nearly a generation it seems, while major junior hockey across the country gain in franchise value and revenues.
When one considers that the CHL sold their players' images and names to EA Sports without any compensation forwarded to the players, you realize all is not quite right with the relationship between the ownership and the players right now.
There are a lot of areas for improvement and legitimate issues facing junior hockey players today that aren't being addressed. Forming a union is one way of doing so. But the way this has all come about this past week seems to be wrong-headed. Hopefully these mis-steps don't prove costly for the players long term. I'm afraid of how a lot of reporters following these developments seem eager to let this group become a farce (they sure aren't helping) and these issues don't ever get addressed.
The status quo isn't acceptable right now. The aims of this group are unclear. The end goal may turn out to nothing, or it may completely revolutionize the junior game itself. I fear the former moreso than the latter.