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Thoughts on a CHL players' union

The London Knights and Kitchener Rangers are two of the OHL's more successful franchises. (OHL Images)

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The London Knights and Kitchener Rangers are two of the OHL's more successful franchises. (OHL Images)

I can’t help but be fascinated by the fledgling CHLPA – a group whose origins and membership are cloaked in secrecy, whose detractors claim are devoid of simple math and writing skills.

Posited as a union for major junior hockey players in the Ontario, Western and Quebec Leagues, the CHLPA still has no full website and is basically operating via social media and the cacophony of press that surrounds it. When the group posted estimated team revenues on Twitter, the calculations were blown out of the water by local reporters in record time.

Much has been made of the fact no players have come out and admitted to signing up for the union, though the CHLPA’s spokespeople have maintained that anonymity cloaks their clients from ownership reprisal. Is half the CHL already signed up? Are none of the kids on board? It’s all foggy. But I did manage to track down one WHLer who has in fact spoken face to face with Georges Laraque, the public face of the nascent organization. Money is one of the bigger issues the CHLPA is trumpeting, since now the players get a small stipend (around $50 a week) for their exhilarating, crowd-pleasing work on the ice. The WHLer I spoke with noted that younger players – those who haven’t been signed to NHL contracts that bring signing bonuses, for example – often joke about how little they’re paid.

“I like it as it is,” he said. “I’ve had a good time. But it would make it a tad easier. Some teams I know pay cash, so at least there’s no tax.”

According to the WHLer, Laraque also brought up one of the other central tenets of the CHLPA to-do list, which is a reframing of the league’s education package. Currently, players typically earn a year of free post-secondary schooling for every season of service played. But, that package is usually nullified if the player signs a pro contract or doesn’t use the scholarship within 18 months of leaving the team. Laraque would like to see that extended and he’s not the only one. Ryan Murray was taken second overall by Columbus in the 2012 draft and captained the WHL’s Everett Silvertips last season (and if you’re trying to connect the dots from Tuesday’s Hot List, Griffin Reinhart is not the anonymous WHLer I spoke with).

“Some guys would probably pursue that pro contract if they got to keep that education package,” Murray said. “Right now it forces you to go one way or the other.”

Another useful reason for a junior players’ union would be protection. Laraque told the WHLer that if a kid had a problem with his team, he could call the union instead of his agent, so he wouldn’t be singled out by the organization for causing trouble.

Are you buying in? Personally, I’m finding a comfy part of the fence to sit on. The larger philosophical debate that needs to be had here is similar to what the NHL faces right now: small market teams versus big market teams.

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Some franchises would have no problem paying kids substantially more money per week, but many of them are in large markets. Last season, the top five teams in terms of average attendance (as per the excellent Pipeline Show) were Quebec (City), Calgary, London, Vancouver and Halifax. Ottawa came sixth. While London is not a major city, it is just outside the national top 10 in population at approximately 474,000 and the OHL’s Knights are the only major sports team in town.

Contrast that with Val d’Or (33,000 pop.) in the ‘Q,’ or Swift Current in the ‘Dub,’ home to 17,000 citizens. Not to sound all big-city Toronto, but more people live in my neighborhood than in Swift Current.

Of course, the Brampton Battalion had the lowest attendance in the OHL (a shade under 2,000 per game), but that franchise is also owned by one of the guys who invented Trivial Pursuit. Scott Abbott has a world-class coach/director of hockey ops in Stan Butler, has helped produce several prominent NHLers recently and kept the franchise relevant no matter how many fans are in the building. Similarly, Patrick Roy in Quebec and the Windsor power duo of Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner want to win titles – money is great, but these are hockey folk that want banners.

So the “evil owner” thing is harder to swallow at the junior level.

Is junior hockey perfect? No way. Brian McGrattan played for six different OHL teams in four seasons, which couldn’t have been easy on his high school education. And yes, a lot of money is made at events such as the world juniors, of which the players see none. A union is good in theory – I’m just not sure the CHLPA’s current boosters are the people to do it.

For what it’s worth, the WHLer I spoke to said he would follow Laraque if the ex-enforcer were the union head.

“I think I would,” he said. “He seemed pretty confident and doesn’t seem to have a problem standing up for the players.”

Laraque’s no lawyer and he’s definitely not Don Fehr. But it’s not a bad idea to offer protection for hundreds of teens living away from home, chasing dreams that may never come true. Good on the CHLPA for creating this idea out of a vacuum and drumming up interest, but in the end the torch should be passed off to a group that can garner at least a modicum of faith when placed under public scrutiny.

Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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