Union attempt great news for players, bad for operators

Ken Campbell
Mem Cup

The men who run major junior hockey have had it their way for decades and even though the involvement of Canada’s largest private-sector union in an effort to protect the best teenage hockey players in the world has raised a host of red flags, these guys had better continue taking notice.

News that Unifor, a 300,000-member behemoth that represents workers in trades ranging from auto assembly to the media, was getting involved in a potential CHL players’ union is not good news for the Canadian Hockey League any way you look at it. Yes, its leader Jerry Dias denied having any association with Glenn Gumbley, which “changed after the (Toronto) Star presented email correspondence and invoices obtained by the newspaper and a lengthy interview with Gumbley that establish Gumbley at the centre of Unifor’s campaign.” Gumbley led the charge for the ill-fated Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association two years ago and didn’t appear to know much about the inner-workings of the players he’s trying to protect.

But what junior hockey has to realize is how real all of this is now. No longer are they dealing with a couple of ham-handed hockey guys making questionable moves without experience. If this initiative gets off the ground, they’ll be dealing with an enormous organization filled with people who have extensive experience in organizing unions and taking concrete labor action. One of the unions Unifor absorbed when it was created in 2013 was the Canadian Auto Workers, one of the most powerful unions Canada has ever had. And it has the financial resources to take on the CHL and win.

And this can be nothing but good news to the roughly 1,300 players who perform every year in the CHL. Because even if this drive to unionize fails, it will effect change. The Ontario League, which is headed by one of the most progressive hockey people in the world in David Branch, recently improved its benefits and education packages for the first time in decades. So if a dysfunctional CHLPA can prompt that kind of action, just think of what kinds of things a legitimate union will be able to accomplish.

Why, teams might actually have to start paying players a government-mandated minimum wage. Even with the education and benefits all players are eligible to receive factored in, players make a fraction of minimum wage based on all the hours they put in playing, practicing, doing off-ice training, travelling and taking part in community events on behalf of their teams. Everyone associated with this claims it’s not about money, but why not? Why should the best young hockey players in the world not be free to make as much money as other teenagers? Have we become that beholden to the game that we think it’s OK for these kids to earn a pittance in exchange for the chance to chase a dream that the vast majority of them won’t realize anyway?

Branch, who is also president of the CHL, the umbrella organization that represents the OHL, Quebec and Western Leagues, is always quick to play down the amount of money junior hockey operators make. He claims about one-third of the CHL’s 60 teams make money, one-third break even and one-third lose money. But what Branch doesn’t point out is that, in many cases, those teams rotate around based on where they are in their player development cycle. If a junior team is well-run and developing players, it should be able to ice a contending team for a two-year period every couple of years. And that’s when those teams make their money in the form of bigger crowds in the regular season and, most importantly, more home playoff dates. There are periods when times will be good and others when they will be lean and generally speaking, they should even out.

And yes, the education packages have improved markedly over the years, with millions being paid on behalf of former players in the form of tuition fees and expenses. But on the other hand, the CHL stands to make in excess of $7 million in profit when the World Junior Championship is held in Toronto and Montreal in 2015, and likely even more when the same two cities split the tournament two years later.

And this doesn’t take into account how franchise values have skyrocketed in junior hockey. The London Knights were valued at between $12 million and $14 million three years ago. Andre Desmarais, the co-CEO of Power Corporation, three years ago purchased a 25 percent stake in the Quebec Remparts for $4 million, making that franchise worth $16 million. And it’s not only the large-market franchises. The Burgess family purchased the Sudbury Wolves for $125,000 in 1986 and the asking price for that team would be somewhere in the $10 million range.

Unifor is scheduled to hold a meeting in Montreal Wednesday to organize a drive to get players to sign union cards. There are still a lot of unanswered questions here, one of which is whether or not junior hockey players are actually employees who are entitled to the protection of a union. And with all of the weirdness that seems to have been associated with this effort, you have to seriously wonder if some of those involved aren’t exploiting the young men they’re purporting to protect.

Perhaps this effort will fall as flat as the last one two years ago. Perhaps not. But now it is very real. And the people who hold the levers of power for major junior hockey should be very, very concerned. Change is coming. We’re seeing it in the NCAA and now in junior hockey. And if teams like the Moose Jaw Warriors or the Owen Sound Attack can’t deal with it, then perhaps it’s time they either got some help from their partners or looked at closing their doors.