You can bet there are more than a few junior hockey executives running around high-fiving people this morning. When you dodge a bullet you’re always happy. And that’s exactly what junior hockey has done this morning with the implosion of the ill-fated Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association.
In the space of a couple of days in late October, the CHLPA was making headlines more for its bizarre nature than anything it was trying to do for the players. Stories emanating from the identity of its supposed spokesperson, Derek Clarke, were downright creepy. And then there was the even more surreal report by executive director Georges Laraque, who claimed that his hybrid car had been tampered with when someone loosened the bolts on his front tires. A message appeared on the CHLPA’s Facebook page that said Laraque wanted people to, “forget the tragic events of (Oct. 30) and have a happy Halloween.”
Not surprisingly, Laraque announced he is stepping down and those legitimate people who had associated themselves with the CHLPA began to distance themselves very quickly.
Yes, the CHLPA is a mess. It’s a joke as it’s currently constituted. But the fact is its objectives are not. After decades of being paid substandard wages while others make money off their talents and dreams, junior players are at least coming to realize there is a segment out there that feels they are being exploited. This corner has railed against the inequities in junior hockey for the past seven years and we must say, it’s nice to finally have some people in our corner.
What everyone has to remember is that this is just the beginning for the CHLPA, which Laraque says will be handed to someone more professional. (How about the NHL Players’ Association?) But what this union represents are things worth fighting for, and there are few noble causes that were without their initial growing pains. As haphazard and ham-handed as the CHLPA has been, there is no doubt it has a legitimate point when it says the CHL makes millions off the World Junior Championship when it comes to Canada, not a penny of which goes directly to the players.
And whether or not the CHLPA ever gets off the ground, people are starting to take notice. In late-October, former Quebec League player Joshua Desmond filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Division claiming he was owed $12,000 because he was not paid minimum wage. CHL president David Branch countered by saying the CHL regards players as “student-athletes” the same insidious term the NCAA uses to describe the players that fill football stadiums and create billions of dollars in revenues and get nothing more than education and living expenses paid in return.
The CHL will argue that because it pays living expenses and has an education package, players actually make more than just $50 a week. And that’s true, if the player takes advantage of the education package. For a book I wrote that will be released in January, I crunched the numbers. A four-year player in the Ontario League, with room and board and education package (tuition plus books) included, receives an hourly stipend of about $12.69 per hour, which is three dollars more than the minimum wage in Ontario.
But what about those who don’t use the education, either because they’re not academically inclined or they turn pro and play a long career in the minor leagues? Their hourly wage works out to about $4.29 per hour, which is less than half the student minimum wage in Ontario.
No matter how you frame it, the optics are terrible. If a player takes advantage of the education package he makes a little more than minimum wage, but you can bet he has sacrificed a lot more to become a junior hockey player than his teenage peers have to flip burgers or sell sneakers. And that doesn’t even include the summer months, when most junior players have to put aside any prospect of a summer job because most of their time is spent working out and improving their skills.
There are those who contend that a good number of CHL teams wouldn’t be able to stay in business if they had to compensate their players equitably, but is that a valid reason for treating people unfairly? And how would we know? Who’s to say people who patronize junior hockey wouldn’t pay a few more bucks per ticket if they knew it was going to help the players? And why wouldn’t the rich CHL teams help out their smaller partners whose players people are paying to watch?
The CHLPA, as dysfunctional as it is, is at least trying to get some of these questions answered. It may be a total mess, but its objectives are worthy. If and when things get straightened out, perhaps we’ll get some answers.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.